Beautifully Designed, “The Shape of Water” Is a Magical Romance Weighed Down by Leaden Villain

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

There is so much to recommend in Guillermo del Toro’s latest cinematic fantasy that it seems a shame not to like it all. With its magical story of an interspecies romance and meticulous, stunning production design. the film, for much of its running time, is a thrilling delight. Unfortunately, too many supporting scenes disappoint, almost all of them involving the villain, played by an over-the-top Michael Shannon (with whom I have had problems before) saddled with leaden dialogue that does not help his one-note performance. So, if one can ignore that character (difficult, since he pursues our heroes), the movie works.

Set in early 1960s Baltimore, The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins (Maudie) as Elisa, a mute (but not deaf) woman who works in a mysterious government laboratory as a cleaner, along with Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures), who seems to be her only friend outside of neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, The Visitor). He’s a disgraced, gay, alcoholic illustrator with whom she wiles away her free time watching classic Hollywood musicals on TV. But then, one day, a new arrival at the lab catches her eye, mostly because he is accompanied by heavy security. And so begins a new chapter in her life.

According to del Toro (among whose films I particularly love The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy), he was inspired by the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. Given  that his amphibian man in The Shape of Water looks a lot like Abe Sapien, from the 2004 Hellboy, he has clearly been thinking about this creature for a long time.  Regardless of origin, a half-man/half-fish biped shows up, in the company of his jailor (Shannon, Elvis & Nixon) and a nervous scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man). Whenever she can, Elisa pays him a visit, and something more than a friendship blossoms.

Del Toro has always been obsessed with outsiders and victims of bullying. Here, he once more assembles a team of such outcasts, with Elisa, Zelda, Giles and the creature forming a motley crew against the forces of so-called civilization and order. There is real beauty in the quiet moments between Elisa and her new friend. Hawkins, who makes shyness a powerfully expressive emotion in almost every performance, is riveting, and Doug Jones – who also performed Abe Sapien, as well as the faun and the pale man in Pan’s Labyrinth – is marvelous as the creature. Together, they have genuine chemistry, even making charming dance partners in a splashy dream sequence.

But those pesky villains get in the way of perfection. Whether it’s their dreary exposition or the fact that del Toro is just more interested in the central romance, they drag the movie down. Still, I’ll take a half-successful del Toro confection any day over much of what makes it to the multiplex.

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