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THE SHAPE OF WATER: 4 ½ STARS. “ripe with romance, thrills and, above all, empathy.”

Love is not about appearances. That’s a common theme. It’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “King Kong.” It’s “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Edward Scissorhands.” It’s “ET” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” With “The Shape of Water” Guillermo del Toro redefines the age-old maxim for a new generation.

Set in Cold War era Baltimore, Sally Hawkins plays Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman rendered mute by childhood abuse. A cleaner in a military laboratory and storage facility, she communicates through sign language with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and best friend and neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). When a mysterious Amazonian Gill Man, held captive in a giant water-filled iron lung, is brought in the cleaners are told to keep their distance. The creature is not from the Black Lagoon, but from a river in South America.

“The thing we keep in there is an affront,” says the hard-nosed coiled-ball-of-rage Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). I should know. I pulled that thing out of a filthy river in South America and dragged it all the way home and we didn’t get to like one another much.”

Elisa, however, bonds with the beast. After hours, when everyone else has gone home, she stays behind, playing music for the creature, performing dance moves learned from old movies and feeding him her special hard-boiled eggs. They click. She relates to him being unable to speak. “He doesn’t know what I lack,” she tells Giles. “He sees me for what I ham. As I am. He’s happy to see me.” He responds to her gentle nature.

His captors feel differently. They see him—“The Asset” they call him—as a case study, ripe for vivisection so they can discover how he can breathe on land and underwater. Everyone except for Elisa, it seems, wants the Asset dead. The United States government wants to study the body, while the Russians want to kill him and steal the body to prevent the US from learning anything about it.

When Elisa discovers Strickland is torturing the beast she hatches a catch and release plan. Steal the creature, hide him until the next rainstorm fills a nearby canal and set him free. Zelda and Giles reluctantly agree to help. “He’s not human,” protests Giles. “If we don’t help it,” Elisa replies, “neither are we.” A doctor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who doesn’t want to see the creature harmed, provides medical advice.

The tale of intrigue takes a romantic turn when Elisa begins to regard the Asset as more man than monster.

“The Shape of Water” is a dreamy slice of pure cinema. Del Toro uses the stark Cold War as a canvas to draw warm and vivid portraits of his characters. Elisa and Giles are an unconventional family, outsiders in a world that values conformity. Zelda is a feisty and funny presence—“I can handle pee,” she says, mop in hand cleaning up one of the Asset’s messes. “I can handle poo. But blood? That does something awful to me.”—while the creature is an empathic being with soulful eyes who glows with blue light when he is happy.

The combination of characters and del Toro’s flights of fancy is not only a love letter to the movies—Giles and Elisa live above a movie theatre, watch old musicals on TV and there’s even an Old Hollywood fantasy sequence inside the story—but a Valentine to why we fell in loves with the movies in the first place. It’s a feast for the eyes and the heart.

At the center of it all are Hawkins and Doug Jones as the Asset. Both, one nakedly emotional, the other hidden away under layers of make-up, wouldn’t be out of place in a silent movie. The fantasy elements of the story swirl around but Hawkins’s delicate but steely presence (aided by Jenkins’s heartfelt and occasionally heartbreaking loyalty) grounds the story in reality. Jones. Though covered in scales and gills, uses his physicality to project the character’s power and vulnerability.

In the story’s thriller section Shannon provides a villain whose gangrenous fingers are a metaphor for the rot in his soul. In the actor’s hands Strickland is as cold as the blood that runs through the creature’s veins.

Wound tightly together these elements combine to form a beautiful creature feature ripe with romance, thrills and, above all, empathy for all. This is the kind of movie that reminds us of why we fell in love with movies in the first place.

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