Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Guillermo del Toro
STARS Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon

Beauty and the Beast meets The Creature from the Black Lagoon in The Shape of Water, an unusual love story that emerges as writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s best English-language movie to date.

Del Toro, whose Spanish-language efforts (particularly Pan’s Labyrinth) remain more deeply satisfying than his Hollywood output, has crafted (along with co-scripter Vanessa Taylor) a sensual and often surreal drama in which a mute cleaning woman named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) finds romance in an unexpected place. Working alongside her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) at a research facility in 1960s Baltimore, Elisa is naturally curious when government operative Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives on the property with a water-filled tank in tow. Elisa soon discovers that Strickland has brought an amphibious humanoid to the facility, a highly intelligent creature he fished out of the Amazon. While Strickland abhors his nautical discovery and wants it destroyed, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist with a clouded past, wants to study it. For her part, Elisa just wants to become friends with a being whose silence and outsider status peg him as a kindred spirit.

If The Shape of Water never quite breaks out of the confines of what’s basically (to quote B&B) a tale as old as time, it’s still an artfully executed diversion further strengthened by an excellent central performance by Hawkins and stellar supporting turns by Stuhlbarg (also memorable in this season’s Call Me By Your Name) and Shannon. As for the “Amphibian Man,” he’s played by Doug Jones — no, not the Doug Jones who humiliated accused perverts Roy Moore and Donald Trump in Alabama nor the Dougie Jones made famous in the latest Twin Peaks season, though either would have been fascinating. This is the Doug Jones who’s best known for playing critters in such works as Pan’s LabyrinthMimic and the Hellboy twofer. He’s basically del Toro’s own Andy Serkis, and the director is lucky to have him.

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