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Gorgeous And Lyrical 'Shape of Water' Doesn't Quite Hit Its Mark


This is FRESH AIR. The Mexican-born director Guillermo del Toro is known for such otherworldly fantasies as "Pan's Labyrinth," "Crimson Peak" and the "Hellboy" movies. He won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for his new film, "The Shape Of Water," which stars Sally Hawkins as a woman whose job is cleaning offices. She finds herself caught up in government intrigue during the Cold War. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "The Shape Of Water" is such a lyrical and imaginative piece of storytelling that I'm genuinely disappointed that I didn't love it more. There's no doubting the visionary credentials of the director, Guillermo del Toro, though his richly atmospheric fantasies are often more inspired in concept than they are in the moment-to-moment unfolding. The great exception is his Oscar-winning 2006 film "Pan's Labyrinth," a masterpiece of historical fantasy in which he held a brutal Spanish war story and a transporting fairy tale in exquisite balance.

"The Shape Of Water" attempts and sometimes achieves a similar alchemy. Set in 1962, it's both a stylized vision of Cold War paranoia and an old-school monster movie in the vein of "Creature From The Black Lagoon." The creature here is a sort of scaly green humanoid with gills, webbed extremities and soulful eyes played by del Toro's regular collaborator Doug Jones. He was recently discovered in the Amazon and is now being held and observed in a top-secret facility in Baltimore where government officials, believing him to possess godlike powers, hope to use him in their fight against the Russians.

We are ushered into this underground laboratory by a shy cleaning woman named Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, the British actress known for her work in "Happy-Go-Lucky" and "Blue Jasmine." Hawkins' performance is wondrously expressive and almost entirely silent. Elisa is mute, having had her vocal cords slashed by an abusive guardian when she was just a baby. Her physical disability grants her an immediate sense of empathy for the captive specimen, and as she mops the floor near his water tank, she initiates an unlikely friendship, feeding him boiled eggs and communicating with him in sign language.

Before long, Elisa becomes determined to set the creature free, at which point "The Shape Of Water" morphs into a tense "Prison Break" thriller and a striking "Beauty And The Beast" romance. It also becomes, somewhat heavy-handedly, a tale of repressed minorities banding together to fight the establishment. It's no accident that Elisa's only two other friends are her neighbor Giles, an aging gay artist embodied with soulful depth by Richard Jenkins, and a coworker, Zelda, warmly played by Octavia Spencer, who, after "The Help" and "Hidden Figures," is no stranger to capturing the resilience a black woman needed to survive in the '60s. One sequence beautifully captures her friendship with Elisa, who listens quietly as Zelda discusses her daily routine.


OCTAVIA SPENCER: (As Zelda) Oh, my feet are already killing me. I made Bruce (ph) the pigs in the blanket tonight before leaving. And boy, he just ate them up - no thank yous, no yum yums - not a feat. Man is as solid as a grave. But if farts were flattery, honey, he'd be Shakespeare. And then I get home, and I make him breakfast - eggs, bacon and buttered toast. I butter the man's toast, Elisa - mmm hmm, both sides, as if he was a child. And I don't even get a thank you. You'd be grateful because you're an educated woman. But my Bruce - all he had going for him was animal magnetism back in the day. Hasn't worked in a while. What in the Sam Hill? Lou (ph), you boys mind putting the trash in the can? That's what it's there for.

CHANG: Elsewhere at the lab, Michael Stuhlbarg lends some heft and nuance to the role of a scientist so awed by the creature's existence that he winds up disobeying orders and becoming an unexpected ally. But the villain of the piece, the one who reminds us that humans are often the greatest monsters, is a sadistic government agent tasked with ensuring that the creature cooperates. He's played by Michael Shannon, who gives an arresting, if obvious, performance in his by-now-patented bug-eyed lunatic mode.

The look of "The Shape Of Water" is intoxicating, and true to the movie's title, marvelously fluid. Del Toro moves the camera around his sets like an expressionist master. At times, he seems to be trying to see how many different shades of green he can fit into Paul D. Austerberry's production design, from the bright teal of a sporty new Cadillac to the murkier aquamarine of the laboratory walls.

The director loves the visual and emotional extravagance of old Hollywood. And at one point, he gives Elisa and her amphibious paramour a dreamlike dance number in the style of the old black-and-white musicals she watches on TV. It's a lovely gesture, but also one you can see coming. If del Toro was an exuberant devotee of classic American movies, his scholarship sometimes feels a bit, well, studied. Out there as it is, "The Shape Of Water" has fewer surprises up its sleeve than you might hope, and its surrealism can feel too neatly diagrammed by half.

I'm not sure the movie fully earns its audacious central romance, which feels less like a wondrous, spontaneous leap than a stroke of calculated perversity that arrives right on cue, which more or less sums up my attitude toward the movie. It's a gorgeous achievement, to be sure, but no matter how much I wanted to fall for it, it kept wriggling out of my embrace.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll ask, are we at a turning point in how we handle allegations of sexual harassment? We'll also look back on how Anita Hill's allegations against Clarence Thomas were handled in his confirmation hearings. We'll hear from New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, who co-wrote a book about the hearings, and Rebecca Traister, who writes about feminist issues. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.