Spoiler Warning: This review gives away a big piece of the plot of the film.
CAPSULE: A military project is examining a captive amphibian-man. A cleaning woman befriends the amphibian- man and decides to try to set him free. Michael Shannon's performance is a major high spot. The plot is very, very similar to that of a once well-known play, Paul Zindel's "Let Me Hear You Whisper." Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
By now Mexican director/writer/producer Guillermo del Toro has been around making horror movies such as PAN'S LABYRINTH (2006) and also making comic book adaptations. His comic book films are not my cup of tea, but at least they were physically beautiful films. I consider his horror films are generally excellent. His premier film was CRONOS, one of the rare horror films that played the art house circuit. His most recent film, THE SHAPE OF WATER, does not fall into either of the previous categories. It is more a hard- edged fairy tale. I would say the film has one major problem...
In 1969 and again in 1990 PBS adapted to television Paul Zindel's play "Let me Hear You Whisper." In this story a downtrodden cleaning woman in a secret government laboratory finds a dolphin in a tank and befriends it. It has been trained to sing the words to "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." From that song Zindel takes the title of the play. The cleaning woman discovers to her horror the dolphin is really being trained to fight wars undersea and be blown up with the munitions he carries. She determines to steal the dolphin in a laundry cart and set it free. That is much like del Toro's story but Zindel's name does not appear in the credits of the new film.
I will not describe here the plot of THE SHAPE OF WATER, but I will let people who have seen the film draw their own conclusions. Del Toro says his inspiration for this film was CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Certainly the amphibian man in this film could be based on the Creature. But I know of no statement from the filmmakers that mentions this film and Zindel's play in the same breath. I did not see Zindel's name anywhere in the credits. I will be interested to see how this problem plays out.
Unfortunately, what is original about this film is a mixed bag. There are some remarkable visions as we might expect from the director of PAN'S LABYRINTH. But even the images outstay their 123-minute welcome in what seems like a longer production than was needed. The score by Alexandre Desplat has not much melody, but manages a dreamlike quality.
One of the (several) features of the script is an incident of sexual abuse and harassment. I believe there is no way del Toro could have known how timely this theme would be when the film was released, but it works well for the film. The film is set in 1962 and the government doing the best it can fight--clean or dirty-- mostly dirty--to oppose the Soviets who are happy to fight just as dirty.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, the cleaning woman who is separated from most other people by being a mute. Michael Shannon plays well in a part much like his previous work in "Boardwalk Empire." He makes an all-purpose villain and exudes an air of menace. Elisa's best friend is Octavia Spencer, who shone in HIDDEN FIGURES and this season is in both this film and in GIFTED.
If I had to choose the two most creative horror directors I would choose Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Guillermo del Toro. I am sorry to see del Toro resorting to uncredited near-remakes of other people's stories. Still the film is engrossing and visual enough that I rate THE SHAPE OF WATER a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5580390/combined
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_shape_of_water_2017
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2017 Mark R. Leeper