Movie Review: The Shape of Water

If you’re the kind of person who can stare at a Pantone® fan deck for hours on end (and I’m one of those people), you will love THE SHAPE OF WATER for its use of colour alone. Who knew there could be so many shades of teal?

The time is 1962 and it’s the height of the Cold War. At a post-industrial government facility on the outskirts of Baltimore, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, HIDDEN FIGURES; FATHERS & DAUGHTERS) and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, the PADDINGTON films) work as cleaners on the graveyard shift. Both women, who have been marginalised by society, are relegated to being “piss wipers”, as their all-male bosses refer to their jobs. Zelda is African-American and in 1962 that’s enough to put you on the sidelines. Elisa has been mute for most of her life, the result of someone cutting her neck when she was a baby. Today, she’s left with three scars as a reminder. Elisa lives in a tiny studio apartment above an old-school cinema, at the end of a drab, narrow hallway. Her next door neighbour is Giles (Richard Jenkins, KONG: SKULL ISLAND; TV’s SIX FEET UNDER), a single man who is an outsider himself. A middle-aged commercial illustrator, he’s been unemployed for a while for reasons that are revealed later in the story.

Elisa’s life changes when an “asset” arrives at the facility. An amphibian man (long-time Guillermo del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) has been caught in the Amazon and brought to the Baltimore facility so that it can be studied by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, ELVIS & NIXON). The Soviet Union is miles ahead of the US in the burgeoning Space Race and the amphibian man may be just what the US needs to catch up. Elisa is immediately drawn to the creature who, like her, is seen by the White male “insider” establishment as being inferior. Elisa, though, sees what the others refuse to acknowledge – the creature is intelligent. So, when no one is watching, she begins to teach it sign language and a relationship between the two begins to develop. When she overhears that Col. Strickland plans to vivisect the creature, she hatches a plan to spirit it away from the facility. For her plan to succeed, though, she’ll need the help of Giles, Zelda and one unlikely ally at the facility who has his own reasons for keeping the amphibian man alive.

Director and co-writer del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH; the HELLBOY films) is known for his fantastical films but with THE SHAPE OF WATER he has created a masterpiece. The IMDb calls this film an adventure/drama/fantasy but that’s selling it short. It’s also romance/sci-fi/musical, taking influences from the likes of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946), KING KONG (1933), SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952), ROYAL WEDDING (1951), THE RED SHOES (1948) and many others. The film also features clips from THE LITTLE COLONEL (1935) and late 1950s/early 1960s TV classics MR. ED and THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS, not simply as an homage to the past or to frame time but as a message that we need listen to the outsiders in our lives because they have strengths and abilities that often go unnoticed. The “outsider” theme can also be found in the movie that is showing at the cinema below Elisa’s and Giles’ apartments. The Biblical epic, THE STORY OF RUTH (1960) recounts the tale of Ruth the Moabite who, after becoming a widow at a young age and being left with nothing, decides to hang her fate with the Jewish people. (Her story is told every year at the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.) Ruth’s spiritual journey is reflected in Elisa’s emotional journey in THE SHAPE OF WATER. In the film’s opening scene which is narrated by Giles, he refers to Elisa as a princess in what is likely another reference to the Biblical Ruth as she ultimately became the great-grandmother of King David.

THE SHAPE OF WATER has already picked up a staggering 72 awards and 232 nominations, including Golden Globes for Best Director – Motion Picture and Best Original Score – Motion Picture. It’s also the front runner at this year’s Oscars with 13 nominations including acting nods to Hawkins, Jenkins and Spencer. They are all wonderful but none more so than Hawkins for her sensitive and subtle performance. She has stiff competition coming Frances McDormand (THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI) but where the film should score an easy win is in the production design. The colours of this film will amaze you – not only for the range of shades of teal but for del Toro’s strategic use of red, which the director has said symbolises Elisa’s love. THE SHAPE OF WATER really is a feast for the eyes and the soul.

Definitely go see this film on a big screen so that you can take in all the glorious shades of teal! THE SHAPE OF WATER is right at the top of my list for best films of 2017.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, February 1st at 8:30 am HK time!

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