Visual style and stellar cast can't overcome story flaws

Few things can damage a movie experience more for me than the weight of expectations. And they weighed heavy with “The Shape of Water.”

Director Guillermo del Toro has a visionary visual style, to be sure, although I've never quite found him to be as much of a master storyteller as some of his peers.

But both the concept and cast of “Shape of Water” were so intriguing, it was among my most anticipated movies of December, which makes its misfires all the more painful.

It's the 1960s, and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor at a research facility. Elisa is mute from birth and leads an unremarkable but not unhappy life.

She interacts with her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), but is relatively solitary.

But the arrival of a mysterious amphibious creature at the facility (played by Doug Jones, no relation to Alabama's senator-elect) brings an unexpected connection.

The creature is scared, but his eyes reveal an empathy that Elisa is drawn to, and she decides to help him.

That del Toro crafts a beautiful world is of little surprise. His world is a grown-up fairy tale, and it's beautifully shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen. It's not as much in its own world as del Toro's “Pan's Labyrinth,” but the feel is similar.

There's also a layer of Cold War intrigue, most notable in Michael Shannon's ominous government baddie — a menacing beast only he can pull off.

Shannon rounds out one of the best casts of the year. These aren't superstar names, but they're some of the best actors working today.

I wish Hawkins did more movies, because she's a perpetual delight. This film could do no better than her performance; few actresses could have done as much as she, largely through the expressiveness of her eyes.

But this brings me back to del Toro's storytelling and the key stumbling block I just couldn't get over.

Elisa doesn't just connect with the creature. She falls in love with him.

Honestly, I think it's a tall order to depict falling in love realistically onscreen. It needs to be the central plot. It's an especially tall order to deliver an interspecies romance.

And that central romance failing to convince me that this woman and this fish-man are falling in love undercuts the whole experience. The pieces were there for one of the year's best films, but it may have been better served with a friendship. Fish-men and women can be friends, you know.