Elisa’s interest is stirred less by curiosity than by recognition. Because of her muteness, she is looked at by others — and sometimes regards herself — as “incomplete,” something less than fully human. Her two best friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman who works with her, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man who lives next door. The understated, intuitive sympathy among these outcasts gives this fable some political bite.
Bigotry and meanness flow through every moment like an underground stream, but kindness is always possible, and so is beauty. “The Shape of Water” is made of vivid colors and deep shadows; it’s as gaudy as a musical (and briefly turns into one), bright as a cartoon and murky as a film noir. (The cinematographer is Dan Laustsen. The score is by Alexandre Desplat.) Its busy plot moves swiftly — the presence of Russian spies never hurts, especially when one is played by Michael Stuhlbarg — except when Mr. del Toro lingers over a moment of tenderness, a delicate joke or an eruption of grace.
Ms. Hawkins and Doug Jones, soulful and gorgeous beneath his shimmering carapace of blue-green scales, supply most of those. Since neither Elisa nor the Asset possesses the power of speech, they communicate through gestures and, since both can hear, through music. Ms. Hawkins, giving a silent performance in a sound film, will perhaps inevitably evoke Charlie Chaplin, and she moves her body and her facial features with Chaplinesque elegance, narrowing the distance between acting and dancing, turning physical comedy into corporeal poetry.
Mr. del Toro, though he has dabbled in large-scale, franchise-ready filmmaking, has never succumbed to the authoritarian aesthetic of the Hollywood blockbuster. He is a reflexive democrat whose underdog sympathies haven’t curdled into glum superhero self-pity. The most welcome and notable thing about “The Shape of Water” is its generosity of spirit, which extends beyond the central couple. Zelda and Giles, an artist whose advertising career has been derailed, are not just supporting players. They have miniature movies of their own, as does Mr. Stuhlbarg’s scientist-cum-spook. And so, for that matter, does Strickland, though it isn’t a…