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Beauty and the beast: 'Shape of Water' a fable about love beyond words

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Preston Barta

The Shape of Water

3.5 of 5 stars
Rated R, 123 minutes.
Opens Friday.

As the father of dark, lyrical fantasies, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Crimson Peak) is a master of creating visually stimulating worlds filled with terror and wonder. His dreamscapes are often places we can relish and transform into poignant stories of significance — and his tender new entry, The Shape of Water, continues to follow this current.

Set against the backdrop of Cold War-era America (circa 1962), the film's story sees Elisa Esposito (a terrific Sally Hawkins), who is mute but can hear, working as a cleaner at a government research facility. Her daily routine of boiling eggs, morning bath-time fun, artful conversations with her gay best friend and roommate (an award-worthy Richard Jenkins), and scrubbing dirty hallway floors with her co-worker (a lovely Octavia Spencer) keep her afloat, but it's apparent Elisa longs for purpose.

The murky waters clear, however, when government bad guy Richard Strickland (a fearsome Michael Shannon) brings in the amphibian man (Doug Jones), a mysterious marine specimen who looks like a he's from the same pond as the creature from the Black Lagoon and Abe Sapien from del Toro's Hellboy films. While Elisa develops feelings for the otherworldly fish-man and wants to set him free, Strickland only desires to take him apart for an experimental advantage against the Russians.

There are many elements at play here, including a government heist, an appreciation for classic cinema and an interspecies romance (which is mainly illustrated through a mere montage sequence). Del Toro doesn't quite blend all these elements into one cohesive mix. Thankfully, there are some fascinating details, such as questions of when a person is finished proving himself or herself, that board up a few narrative leaks.

What makes The Shape of Water such a story to soak in is del Toro's ability to generate works that serve as reflections of political and social conceptions of both past and present. The centralized themes are why we feel the need to destroy what we don't understand and why we mistreat those who are different. This may sound like a tale as old as time, but given the nature of the world, it's one that deserves retelling.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

FEATURED IMAGE: Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones star in The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro's Cold War fantasy tale. (Kerry Hayes/Fox Searchlight Pictures )