THE leading lady is mute, her prince has webbed feet, and the clean-cut ogre drives a teal blue Cadillac.

By refracting this otherworldly fairytale through H20, director Guillermo Del Toro bends cinematic conventions in strange and unusual directions.

Set at the height of the Cold War, caught in the orbit of the Space Race, The Shape Of Water is a brutal, violent and at times grotesque parable about science, politics and prejudice.

At its core, however, there's a surprisingly tender love story.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) lives in a leaky, dilapidated apartment above an old movie theatre.

The isolated and literally voiceless orphan has just two friends.

Giles (Richard Jenkins), her closeted next-door neighbour, shares Elisa's passion for big-screen musicals (in one scene, they sit together on a couch tapping out the steps to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's iconic staircase dance in The Little Colonel, with Shirley Temple).

Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins in a scene from the movie The Shape of Water.
Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins in a scene from the movie The Shape of Water. Kerry Hayes

Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a fellow cleaner at the top secret Baltimore research laboratory, likes to talk. Elisa is a good listener.

After spending the best part of a decade together working the graveyard shift - they clock on at the bewitching hour of midnight - the two women have an almost symbiotic relationship.

And when confronted by paternalistic authority figures such as Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the watchful African-American has Elisa's back.

The fact that each of these three key characters represents a repressed minority is no accident.

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in a scene from the movie The Shape of Water.
Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in a scene from the movie The Shape of Water. Kerry Hayes

While the numberplate on Strickland's shiny new Cadillac specifies 1962, the film has a dangerous '50s, McCarthyist tone.

Zelda and Elisa happen to be on duty for the arrival of a strange new specimen in a large, glass-topped tank.

Inexplicably drawn to the alien creature, Elisa surreptitiously begins to visit.

What follows is a tentative courtship involving sign language, LPs and eggs - seldom have the seamless ovoids appeared so plump with portent.

Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins make for an oddly affecting pair as the monster and the mute in The Shape Of Water,
Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins make for an oddly affecting pair as the monster and the mute in The Shape Of Water,

 

Under Elisa's sympathetic gaze, a magnificent amphibian man slowly emerges from the water.

While clearly a wild animal - at one point he bites the head of a domestic cat - the creature is also capable of extreme gentleness.

Over time, it emerges that he also has miraculous healing powers.

Seen through the eyes of a white supremacist such as Strickland, however, the creature is abhorrent, subhuman

The political allegory of the scenes in which he tortures his captive with a cattle prod is somewhat heavy handed.

Then again, The Shape Of Water is a fairytale and Strickland is the monster.

Adding a little more ethical balance to the laboratory is Michael Stuhlbarg's scientist/Russian spy, Dr Robert Hoffstetler.

As an oddly engaging romance, The Shape Of Water floats.

But the overarching thriller is so meticulously art directed, it feels a bit self-conscious.

I couldn't help but wish for a treatment that was a little more porous or free flowing.

The Shape Of Water opens tomorrow.

 

THE SHAPE OF WATER (MA15+)

 

Three and a half stars

 

Director: Guillermo del Toro

 

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer

 

Verdict: Semi-aquatic creature feature