TIFF Diary #2: ‘The Shape of Water,’ ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ ‘Novitiate,’ and ‘Ex Libris’

Our Toronto International Film Festival reviews of Guillermo del Toro's love story, Steve Carell and Emma Stone's true tennis story, and more.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water opens with a meandering voiceover by Giles (Richard Jenkins), who saw it all, and wonders, “If I spoke about it… if I did… what would I tell you?” So from the jump, it’s a bedtime story – a fairy tale for grownups. (And the last part of that is important; it does include a fully nude bathtub masturbation scene in the first ten minutes. But set to whimsical music!) Early on, Jenkins tells the story’s heroine, Eliza (Sally Hawkins) about a nearby chocolate factory fire, which he describes as “tragedy and delight, hand in hand.” And frankly, that’s a pretty accurate summary of the movie too.

The setting is a government laboratory, circa 1962, where our Eliza mops floors alongside pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and stumbles upon a monster in captivity – a Creature from the Black Lagoon-style man/fish mash-up, held against its will and none too happy about it. We see what the damage he can inflict before we even see him, so there’s danger running beneath his initial interactions with Eliza, but soon enough they develop some affection, and she decides she must save him, no matter the cost.

Hawkins is fabulous as the mute Eliza; witness the intensity with which she pleads her case for extraction (and only in sign language), or the way she looks at Jenkins at a key moment, when he thinks he’s coming to save her. Nothing else matters in that first flush of love, and del Toro’s wonderful film lives in that moment, and revels in it. In this Cold War-era fable, he constructs a world of old movies and scratchy records, period details and practical monsters. It’s like it was shot in his traveling museum exhibit, and I, for one, didn’t want to leave. What a divine movie this is.

*

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Battle of the Sexes dramatizes the 1973 exhibition match between groundbreaking female tennis pro Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), which turns into a giant event at the Houston Astrodome, its showbiz and pageantry broadcast in prime time by Howard Cosell. That match is far enough in the rearview that a healthy chunk of Battle of the Sexes’ audience may not know how it turns out (or at least the specifics; the outcome’s not hard to guess, based on the fact that they made a movie out of it). Yet its strongest scenes have little to do with that event at all – it works best as a character study of King, and as a portrait of both the trickiness of unapologetic public feminism in the 1970s, and the complications of sexual identity.

The filmmakers don’t just set Battle of the Sexes in 1973, but carefully try to make it look like it was made then; there’s a pronounced period aesthetic to Linus Sandgren’s photography, so much so that it almost looks like Haskell Wexler shot it. They also capture a real sense of place, getting into the tour’s on-the-road groove, seemingly at home in these hotel rooms, cars, and locker rooms, even if they house some sadly predictable moments (just don’t badmouth anyone while you’re in the bathroom, they’re always in the stall). And they have some trouble in the climax, what with tennis being so boring to watch if you’re not a fan (hi) – in fact, we don’t see even a portion of any actual tennis play until nearly an hour in.

Yet the bigger problem is that King’s story is so much more compelling than Riggs’, so (in spite of Carell’s best efforts), he just becomes a distraction. Carell has a good time, and gets off some funny bits (the best is probably his visit to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, where he announces, “You folks aren’t here because you’re gamblers, you’re here because you’re terrible gamblers”). Yet the film ends up walking a strange line of giving us both too much Riggs (if they’d rather make a movie about King) and not enough (if they really want to make a movie about both). Battle of the Sexes is ultimately a fine, enjoyable movie – a funny and involving crowd-pleaser with some strong performances and sharp moments. But it still feels like a missed opportunity.

*

Margaret Betts’s Novitiate is set in a convent, right around the introduction of the “Vatican II” guidelines, and one of her key accomplishments – particularly for those of us with a more secular outlook – is how she zeroes in on the appeal of this mission: these young women turned to the church for acceptance, understanding, and ritual. And, as one of them explains, “we were women in love,” with God.

Her name is Cathleen (well played by Margaret Qualley), and Novitiate is seen mostly through her eyes: her (late) introduction to the church, the need that brings her to the convent, the intensity of the daily routine shared by her and her fellow initiates by their Mother Superior, played by Melissa Leo as a ruthless, roaring bully. It’s an intense character, but Leo’s is frankly a bad performance, all broad indicating and gnashing of teeth; she tends to do her best acting when she’s restrained, and this, to say the least, is not that.

That complaint aside, Betts’s direction is sure-handed, and she gets fine work from Julianne Nicholson (both funny and mournful as Cathleen’s irreligious mother), Dianna Agron (as the warm and compassionate nun who finally buckles under Mother Superior), and especially Qualley, whose work is raw and potent. In a way, Novitiate is like a companion piece to Silence, pondering some of the same big questions of faith and affirmation. It’s not quite the film Silence is, but few movies are.

*

There is an edit early in Frederick Wiseamn’s Ex Libris: New York Public Library that nearly moved me tears, so perfect is its execution and messaging. He spends the first several minutes of this celebration of the NYPL at the gorgeous Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue – you know the one, you’ve seen in the movies, the one with the lion statues out front. He takes in a free author talk in the lobby, observes its research assistants at work, and gawks at the glorious architecture. And then he cuts from there to after-school tutoring at the Jerome Park branch in the Bronx, the juxtaposition underscoring the contrasts between the locations: from ornate to utilitarian, adults to children, institutional to neighborhood. That edit encapsulates the entire movie, really, because this library is both of those things, and many more, all at the same time.

Over the course of his three-plus hours, he observes the scope of the institution’s activities: musical performances, education courses, poetry recitals, lectures, conversations, book clubs, dance classes, children’s story times, Braille services, talking books recordings, and computer classes for aging, non-English speakers. These aren’t just libraries – they’re community centers, where patrons do much more than browse shelves. As the architect for the current renovation of the Mid-Manhattan branch puts it, “Libraries are not about books. They’re about people who want to get knowledge.”

And Wiseman is, clearly, one of them. His film ventures out to the branches (finding the lion logo statues flapping gently in breezes across the city) while treating the Schwarzman Building as his home base, and takes in all that he finds via his signature, semi-anthropological style; as ever, he’s interested in observing how things work, how people live, and ultimately, how society functions. In the library’s workers and its users, he finds a cross-section of race, class, education and experience – a microcosm of NYC itself. And that’s why Wiseman is such an ideal documentarian for this subject: he seems to be interested in literally everything, and he finds what the librarians and community members have to say just as valuable, if not more so, than the wisdom of the visiting authors. The democracy of his filmmaking is, as ever, striking; this is one of our most American artists, and Ex Libris is the very definition of what he does well.