Guillermo del Toro makes this story of a lonely, dreamy woman in early-1960s Baltimore an exquisite, aching fairy tale performed by a brilliant acting company, led by Sally Hawkins. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.

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Sally Hawkins’ face is a movie screen in Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous “The Shape of Water”; a place on which stories play out hauntingly, caught in magic light. She plays Elisa, a lonely, dreamy woman in early-1960s Baltimore who works the night shift as a janitor in a mysterious high-security government lab. Mute since childhood — she is, we learn, an orphan with no family — she lives a quiet but not unhappy life, listening patiently to a stream of chatter from her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) at home and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) at work. But she dreams of water, of floating in a shadowy green deep, and one night she falls in love — with a swamp thing.

Well, no, he’s not really a swamp thing, though that seems an appropriate moniker for the old-school feel of this movie. He’s described, by the bureaucrats at the lab, as an “asset”: an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) captured from the sea and cruelly tethered, with deep round eyes, a manlike (if scaly) physique and an uncanny talent for empathy. Elisa, who’s probably never done anything outside the lines in her life, determines to help him — whatever the cost.

Movie Review ★★★★  

‘The Shape of Water,’ with Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, from a screenplay by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. 123 minutes. Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language. Several theaters.

As in all of his films (most notably my favorite, “Pan’s Labyrinth”), del Toro’s storytelling is imaginative and mesmerizing; you never know where “The Shape of Water” is going. But, like water, you let it engulf you and sweep you away. He makes Elisa’s story an exquisite, aching fairy tale performed by a brilliant acting company, each of whom creates their own world around their character. (Also among them: a perfectly cast Michael Shannon, his face seemingly sculpted entirely from downward lines, as a villainous government agent.) Visually, it’s a sea of greenish light, of surfaces that seem perpetually wet, of nighttime hallways and worried faces caught in shadows.

And — appropriately for this dream of a creature feature — a nostalgic love for movies shines through, between every line: in the faded red-velvet glory of the movie house beneath Elisa’s and Giles’ apartments; in the way the neighbors companionably tap dance together, seated on the couch, while watching Betty Grable on television; in how the lights capture Elisa, on her late-night bus ride to work, as a Technicolor angel; in its improbably beautiful, only-in-the-movies ending.

In other hands, this story could have been lurid and silly. Here, told through Hawkins’ ever-dancing eyes, it’s poetry; some performances don’t need words.