Full spoilers for The Shape of Water.
Undoubtedly one of the best films of the past year, The Shape of Water has made quite an impact since its release, receiving an incredible thirteen nominations at this year’s Academy Awards. On the surface, the film is a unique romantic epic in which our protagonist, Elisa, falls for an amphibious creature being held at a top-secret research lab. However, when taking a closer look, it becomes clear that The Shape of Water is, in fact, one of the most cleverly diverse films around this awards season with its characters and underlying themes touching on social issues that are prevalent today.
All of the film’s main characters are, in one way or another, misfits of their society. Elisa is a mute, Giles is gay, Zelda is an African American and Dr Robert Hoffstetler is a Soviet spy. Significantly, all of these characters are living through a time of oppression with regards to race, sexuality and ideology, resulting in all of them being faced with some sort of prejudice. Even the villain of the piece, Richard Strickland, is an outcast of sorts, as he constantly hides his true nature behind the mask of what society expects him to be. Unlike our heroes, he refuses to accept himself and subsequently anyone else around him. It’s worth noting that, in many ways, the amphibian man acts as the overall embodiment of these characters, as his differences see him rejected by society and treated as inferior.
The Shape of Water cleverly utilises both its diverse set of characters and its setting of 1960s Baltimore to highlight relevant social issues throughout the film. Some of the more obvious examples of this are somewhat shocking to watch, such as Giles’ rejection at the Pie diner and Strickland’s implied racism towards Zelda. The fact that these incidents are so clearly presented as wrong though, is encouraging as it’s an acknowledgement of just how far we’ve come as a society over the last fifty years.
What’s most impressive about The Shape of Water though, is the way that the highlighting of social issues and clear representation is all a by-product of the characters and their story, rather than the other way around. Elisa, for example, is a very headstrong character with clear motives and personality, who also just happens to be mute. She is not presented as a sympathetic individual who is entirely reliant on others, and the film does not need to focus on her disability in order for her to be compelling. The same can be said for the rest of the films main players; they are well-written characters, important to the story in their own right, who also represent a diverse range of people.
The Shape of Water is the perfect, yet rare, example of diversity done right, and this is what sets it apart this awards season. It successfully, yet subtlety, incorporates relevant social issues and diverse representation and presents them as just another part of an already excellent film.
The Shape of Water (2018), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is distributed in the UK by Fox Searchlight Pictures, certificate 15.