Lady In The Water

Lady In The Water


Reviewed by: Chris

Do you like bedtime stories? If you maybe think back to the time when you were a child, when you were read stories of strange creatures, of wonders beyond this world . . . Children's stories are usually a bit silly but, at the time, they are supremely exciting. As we get older, we maybe lose some of our capacity to believe spontaneously. We are loathe to buy into an idea - we have first to judge it to be a very good book/movie/plan. But if we like it, we can throw caution to the wind and suspend disbelief - at least till the lights come up.

M. Night Shyamalan ('The Sixth Sense') brings us a movie that makes it equally easy to be derisive or awe-struck: My inclination was to be derisive as the advertised storyline seemed laughable, but I ended up being quite impressed (rather, you might say, the way gullible 'Star Trek' and other geek-series fans are, so do be warned: you may be less than stunned), but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I jumped out of my seat in all the right places, let my mind race with mesmerising symbols, gasped at the freshly created mythology, and was grateful that a film did all that without heavy reliance on special effects. 'Lady in the Water' is a modern fantasy with a generous touch of horror. It tells of a doctor who has lost faith in himself, and has an ordinary job as a sort of handyman in an apartment complex called the Cove. His repressed emotions come out as he tries to protect a strange sea nymph or 'narf' called Story, whilst at the same time he is frightened by the nasty piece of lycanthropy, a 'scrunt,' that's after her. He and those around him draw inspiration and learn about themselves as they are pulled in to defend Story against the monstrous evil that is trying to drag her down.

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Hopefully those first two paragraphs will have put you off if this movie is Not For You. An analysis of the tale, the filmmaking and mythology that follows is for anyone who's left. 'Lady in the Water' is maybe too much on the scary side for small children; it is a fairytale for grown ups and older youngsters and offers excellent all-round entertainment. Paul Giamatti shines as the doctor turned building superintendent (Cleveland Heep), Bryce Dallas Howard impresses with other-worldly charm as the mysterious narf, and an ensemble supporting cast keeps us interested from several different angles, from Hispanics with five daughters, to a crossword puzzle addict, to a film critic who hasn't got anything good to say about daft romances where people like to get wet. Shyamalan, apart from writing and directing, also plays a writer with writer's block, then there's a oddball muscleman who only exercises one side of his body, a roomful of cigarette smokers, and a lady who attracts butterflies.

Our narf (who appears from the apartment's swimming pool and disturbs Cleveland's humdrum existence) lives in the passageways beneath the water. The scrunt is a vicious creature that looks like a wolf covered in grass and that can make itself flat and all but invisible. As Cleveland and the other tenants try to solve the riddles that will allow Story to return to her own world, the narf's powers of perception reveal their destinies. Cleveland has an intense stutter that gives Giamatti plenty of time to shape his lines for maximum impact. It miraculously disappears when Story is around (she has that effect on people) and those affected by her presence get pins and needles on the inside. Story's powers of inspiration are destined to have a profound effect on one of the tenants that will shape the world, but who is it? Until her mission is achieved, she cannot think of returning. Our panoply of weird and wonderful characters find ways of relating until the parts they need to play are revealed.

The mythology of narfs, scrunts, guardians of divine law and a celestial eagle, is discovered in bits and dabs through an old woman who speaks no English (when she's explaining, and her daughter translating over the top, some concentration is needed to follow as the two voices overlap and I found this added to the sense of mystery). The old woman is irritated at the constant questions and, to win her trust, Cleveland has to be more childlike - just as is required of the audience, becoming more open to suggestion as we suspend disbelief. Without that, you will not shriek with terror (as I did, quite literally) when the beast appears, or thrill with the wonder of Story's mission, or rejoice in the greatness of mankind hidden beneath the earthly dross.

"Myths provide guidance for difficult times. They can give encouragement as we struggle to survive horrendous ordeals," - I'm quoting from a leading psychologist who specialises in myths and goes on to say that, " . . . tales also provide hints on dealing with mid-life crises or other difficult transitions." These might be myths of Ancient Greece or modern 'myths' such as Robin Hood, 'Lord of the Rings' or, presumably, the Narf. One of the great things about mainstream cinema is that it can provide a source of inspiration used to real effect within our lives, and not just in wartime or to millions of Indians lapping up Bollywood. It provides an alternative to religion in a way that leaves the individual ultimately self-reliant (rather than reliant on supernatural beings that are given real and permanent credence).

Shyamalan not only uses such philosophy in the basis for his story, but combines the necessary ingredients for original myth out of - he claims - a simple bedtime story he wrote for his children (although a rather longer account is given in a book about the film and Shyamalan's split with Disney over its production, in 'The Man Who Heard Voices' by Michael Bamberger). The central character, Story, (her name an obvious pun) is a catalyst for the growth of the other personalities. The bogey-man element is supplied by the scrunt, who might be seen by fans as the materialism that endangers the inspiration the narf provides. This is just one 'explanation' - another might be that everything, including the other characters, are aspects of Cleveland and inside his head. It doesn't matter really as it's not a whodunnit - if the film inspires you, you might pick your own set of answers and, if it doesn't, you presumably won't care.

Master cinematographer Christopher Doyle ('In the Mood for Love', '2046', 'The Quiet American') succeeds in creating a believable vision that would otherwise fall on its face at every turn. Each shot is framed with precision; the pool at night, for instance, looks like a heart filled with blackness, and we are persuaded of the other-worldliness of narfs, scrunts and other beings by careful use of tones that create a seamless transition from the everyday world to that of their Blue World. Production designer Martin Childs ('Shakespeare in Love') completes the illusion by making both worlds appear equally real and worthy of our attention.

Some will see 'Lady in the Water' as a monument to the scriptwriter's ego and sense of self-gratification, especially when we see the role set out for the character he also plays: but such charges would only be sustainable if the end result was invalid (and I have yet to see the symbolism faulted, even if some people don't like the film.)

'Lady in the Water' is a crisp, professionally made fairy tale that you avoid enjoying at your peril. Stories are good for children, offering them important lessons about values; and for those adults who no longer want to fly on the wings of their imagination, we can only be sad that they have lost the spirit they once had.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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A lonely janitor struggles to save a lost fairytale creature.
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Read more Lady In The Water reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ****
Moominkat ***1/2
Jennie Kermode **1/2
Amber Wilkinson **

Director: M Night Shyamalan

Writer: M Night Shyamalan

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Sarita Choudhury, Cindy Cheung, M. Night Shyamalan, Freddy Rodríguez, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt, Noah Gray-Cabey

Year: 2006

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: USA


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