There's more than one magical creature in The Shape of Water. The obvious one is the captured beast (played by actor Doug Jones under tons of makeup and computer-graphic special effects) taken from somewhere in Latin America. There's officially no need to remake The Creature From The Black Lagoon -- nothing's going to top Del Toro and his team's merman design work here.
Then there's Eliza (Hawkins), a caring mute woman who grew up in an orphanage. Neck scars prevent her from speaking... and they look a little like gills. She lives above an old art deco movie theater (Toronto's Elgin where, in a weird twist, I happened to see this movie at its Toronto International Film Festival debut.) Next door is Giles, a commercial artist blacklisted for being gay. It's the heat of the cold war and Eliza works alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as a cleaning lady at some kind of secret government facility.
Before too long, Eliza befriends the creature, under lock and key in the facility. There's also a Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) with orders to destroy the man-fish-thing before the Americans can learn from it, but he's a scientist first. Eventually he, Zelda and Giles all help Eliza rescue the creature before he can be hurt.
The head of security, played by Michael Shannon at his most repulsive , will stop at nothing to protect his job. Shannon's Colonel Strickland is certainly the villain (and he turns violent) but Del Toro first gets us to dislike him in an unusual way: he's selfish to his wife in bed. Sexuality is a current that makes the action of this otherworldly drama flow.