Eye For Film >> Movies >> Lady In The Water (2006) Film Review
Part fairytale, part New Age redemption drama, part soap opera, Lady In The Water is an odd kettle of fish. When beleaguered janitor Cleveland is saved from drowning by a strange woman with an even stranger story, he is quick to make himself her ally, haunted as he is by a past in which he failed to be there when he was needed. Through his commitment to the enigmatic Story, he may at last find a way to unravel his guilt. But what is Story looking for? What is the creature which is hunting her? And why didn't M. Night Shyamalan finish working these things out before he made the film?
Lady In The Water's problems are painfully apparent from its opening sequence, a cartoon explanation of the (invented) folk tale which underlies it. Didactic and overlong, this initially simple story is expanded throughout the film in a frustratingly haphazard manner whenever the plot (such as it is) threatens to grow too thin. As such, it's realistic enough - but as Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow demonstrated, what works as fireside narration doesn't always work on film. This film may hit the spot perfectly for nine or ten year olds keen to explore the connections between fantasy and daily life (some sequences may be too scary for younger children), but it doesn't do much for an adult audience.
After the powerful moral ambiguity of The Village it's disappointing to see Shyamalan retreat into something so awkward and naïve. The willingness of its characters to suspend disbelief is difficult for the audience to believe in and its message that trust is always rewarded seems at odds with its hints at really nasty things lurking in the shadows. What these things are and why they do what they do is never explained. Similary, supporting characters take extreme actions without any apparent motive beyond them seeming like a good idea at the time. A lame attempt to joke about this through a movie critic who complains about characters speaking the plot just makes the unfolding dialogue more painful, and his later references to movie clichés represent a sub-Scream level of parody, as if the script is embarrassed by itself. In this context, the portrayal of a talented and world-shaking writer by Shyamalan himself is not just narcissistic but frankly laughable.
What turns this film around and makes it worth watching despite these problems is its first class development of the characters themselves, with great work put in by all the actors, including Shyamalan, though Bryce Dallas Howard is faintly disappointing as the unearthly heroine or 'narf'. As Cleveland, Paul Giamatti is superb, utterly believable and likeable throughout, an ordinary man who has been out of his depth for a long time. His neighbours manage to be intriguingly weird whilst still making an odd kind of sense as a community. There's Reggie, the bodybuilder experimenting by developing just one side of his physique; Mr. Dury, the crossword addict whose son spends all his time playing with cereal boxes; student Young Soon and her irascible mother; and kindly Mrs. Bell, to whom the narf is just one more sick animal in need of care. Scenes which focus on these characters are rich, absorbing and thoroughly entertaining; there's enough here for an ongoing story. It's just a pity that the film concentrates instead on its much weaker supernatural premise.
M. Night Shyamalan is without doubt a great filmmaker. Sadly, releasing a film like this at the same time as publicly savaging Disney can only reduce his chances of securing future funding, and one has to wonder now if he will ever succeed in making the great films we've all been waiting for.Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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