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film review

Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water.The Globe and Mail

This past September, I witnessed a little bit of magic.

It was a weekday afternoon during the Toronto International Film Festival, and The Shape of Water was screening inside the Elgin Theatre, the city's century-old complex that once hosted the legends of vaudeville. About midway through the movie, a startling thing happened.

As the film's lead character, a Cold War-era cleaning woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins), chases after the slippery love of her life (more on him later), she wanders into the empty movie house that sits beneath her apartment. Walking in and out of the theatre's deserted aisles, its massive stage resting in front of her and its gold-and-marble domed roof sealing her from the paranoid horrors of the world outside, Elisa eventually finds the object of her desire, staring up at the screen. But at the same time, my TIFF audience suddenly realized we were watching ourselves on screen, in a sense. Director Guillermo del Toro had filmed parts of The Shape of Water in the Elgin Theatre, and there we all were: sitting in the Elgin, watching the Elgin, as captured by the filmmaker's loving gaze.

It was del Toro's wet, sloppy kiss to the alchemy of the theatrical experience, where the make-believe can become almost tactile. And for the few hundred people in the Elgin that September afternoon, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, delightful and unexpected enough to elicit spontaneous applause. The experience was so transformative that it lent the rest of the screening a buoyant surreality, eventually achieving the platonic ideal of cinema-going: nothing else in the world mattered more than what was being projected on the Elgin's large, all-powerful screen.

In the months since that enchanting episode, the magic of The Shape of Water has felt more ephemeral. Catching up with a second viewing of the film recently, far away from the Elgin's loving confines, I couldn't help but receive the fantasy-drama in a slightly colder, more hard-eyed fashion.

The story, for starters, is slighter and its emotional underpinnings weaker than I once believed. Taking place in 1960s Baltimore, del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor's tale pivots on the mute and meek Elisa as she endures the drudgery of working for the Occam Aerospace Research Centre – a wink to the audience, perhaps, that the narrative to follow is simpler than anyone should expect. One day, the institute's higher-ups (including Michael Shannon, aping his Bible-thumping psycho from Boardwalk Empire) roll in a new "asset," which turns out to be a, well … "merman" is the best description. Or maybe he's a fish-god? A creature from a lagoon whose hue leans toward the black? Anyway, the beast (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones, who projects poignant grace under layers of prosthetics) forms a quick, erotic bond with Elisa, one that threatens to turn everyone's tidy lives upside-down.

What follows is somewhat predictable – Shannon's villain will certainly cause havoc, Elisa's kindly neighbour (Richard Jenkins) will surely play the hero, her sassy co-worker (Octavia Spencer, deserving better dialogue) will definitely be sassy – and easy, cheap even, in its all-surface metaphor for the universal power of love and acceptance. Revisiting it outside the womb of a specific time and place was a disappointing peek behind a conjurer's curtain.

And yet.

That subsequent viewing also yielded richer creative details than before. Each frame is so lovingly and painstakingly crafted that any cynicism is drowned out. From the doomed-future set design to the fairytale-jazz score to the subtle performances Del Toro coaxes out of Hawkins, Jenkins, and Jones (er, not so much Shannon), the film stills boasts a firm grip – if not quite an otherworldly spell.

Del Toro excels at genre work that's both codified (Hellboy, Blade II, Pacific Rim) and more unexpected (Pan's Labyrinth, Crimson Peak), and here he's crafted a film that bleeds into fantasy just as much as it does Sirk-ian melodrama. As much as The Shape of Water's disparate parts shouldn't work – and as much as its "originality" is sourced from the thousands of other fables del Toro has consumed over his lifetime – it does, in the end.

Watching The Shape of Water outside one particular set of extraordinary circumstances, then, is not out of the question. It is only a matter of differentiating between pure magic, and artful sleight-of-hand.

The Shape of Water opens on Dec. 8 in Toronto and Dec. 15 in Vancouver before expanding to other Canadian cities on Dec. 22.