Lady in the Water

2006-10-13 14:30

When Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) discovers a young woman swimming in the pool of the apartment complex he supervises, he is annoyed. No one is supposed to use the pool after 7 PM, so Cleveland orders her out. When she dives and doesn't surface he goes in to rescue her, but slips and ends up having to be rescued himself. He wakes up on his couch to find the ethereally pale Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) beside him wearing nothing but one of his shirts. At first he thinks she may be insane, but he soon comes to believe what she tells him: she is a "narf", a character from a bedtime story sent to bring enlightenment to the human world. Within the mundane walls of The Cove is a great writer waiting for Story's inspiring touch, and Cleveland must help her to find him. There are also darker forces at play, creatures that will stop at nothing to kill a narf and end her quest. But Cleveland is not alone. Among his tenants are people with hidden powers who will help him in his unexpected quest.


Love him or hate him, M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most original filmmakers working today. With films like The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Village to his name, he has earned a reputation for inventiveness, even though many question the merits of what he chooses to invent. Inventiveness doesn't necessarily make for compelling viewing, and this has never been truer than in Lady in the Water. Muddled, clumsy and painfully self-indulgent, Shyamalan's seventh film is by far his worst.

The problem isn't really in the ridiculousness of the plot. Shyamalan has turned many apparently silly stories into fascinating films. The film's fatal weakness is in mechanics like pacing and characterisation. Usually Shyamalan builds slowly towards his supernatural revelations, expertly cranking up the tension until we are completely hooked. Here he expects us to swallow them raw, right at the start of the film.

What's worse his characters never seem to question anything, and just blithely fall into step with the supernatural goings on. They stand around discussing "the Blue World" and "the Madam Narf" as though it's the most natural thing in the world. Yes, it's a fantasy, but all the best fantasy stories have characters that behave like normal people. It would have been nice if just one of them said "Dude. She lives in the pool? What are you smoking?"

It also might have helped if the ersatz mythology weren't quite so silly. Names like "narf" and "scrunt" sound more like those cheesy fight-scene effects from the Batman shows of the '50s. Blam! Dip! Scrunt! The film began as a bedtime story for his children, which may explain its disjointed and simplistic structure. It's certainly not a movie for kids though - the beasties will scare the hell out of them, and the rest will confuse or bore them. As talkshow host Jon Stewart remarked after being told by Shyamalan that his stories did not give him nightmares: "You may not dream, but your kids are f**cking terrified!"

We could perhaps have forgiven these faults if the film remained true to itself, but its self-indulgent streak is inexcusable. For Shyamalan to cast himself in his own film is bad enough, but to give himself the part of a messianic writer who words will change history is beyond the pale. There's also a nasty cynical edge to some parts of the film that jars with the quasi-mythical style. The only unlikable character in the story is a film critic (yes, really), and Shyamalan takes great pleasure in killing him off, despite the fact that this adds nothing to the movie.

As for the wonderful cast, they do their best with the material, but they are hamstrung by writing that turns them into agents of the plot instead of believable characters. The beautiful and talented Bryce Dallas Howard is wasted on this static role. This is her second feature with Shymalan and she looks set to become his muse. Paul Giamatti suffers manfully through his role, bringing pathos to what could have been an utterly limp character.

For all its faults, Lady in the Water still has some flashes of brilliance. Even at his most infuriating, Shymalan has a talent for tapping into the dark power of human imagination. In that respect he can hold his own next to the likes of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and even his own idol, Alfred Hitchcock. But, like all those filmmakers, when he wallows in unstructured creativity he makes unwatchable films (Gilliam's recent The Brothers Grimm is another good example).

Perhaps the most depressing thing about Lady in the Water is the amount of ammunition it provides for Shymalan's detractors. Many have denounced him as a charlatan - a peddler of cheap parlour tricks - and this sort of muddled claptrap only validates those slurs. His fans can only hope he will rally with his next film and prove the critics wrong. Whatever they may say, a world without the fevered visions of M. Night Shyamalan would be a poorer place indeed.

- Alistair Fairweather
We've been eagerly awaiting this new offering from the makers of The Sixth Sense. Pity it's so silly, self-indulgent and emotionally soggy.

sheko 2006/08/18 4:37 PM
lady in the water lady in the water
Mona 2006/08/28 10:55 AM
Lady in the Water Weak - was hoping they would venture into her world & we get to see some really cool graphics! Rather disappointing!
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