Dir. M. Night Shyamalan, US, 2006, 110 mins
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Sarita Shoudhury
Review by Matthew Rodgers
“There is nothing original left in this world”
Harry Farber (Bob Balaban)
A quote from M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film Lady in the Water which the director hopes to address with his most ambitiously complicated, yet equally simple story yet. The film floats onto our cinema screens with a little debris. Upon handing the sixth draft of the script to regular backers, Disney studios, Shyamalan was met with a response that will be echoed around auditoriums over the next month: “I don’t get it”.
What’s not to get? This is the story of Cleveland Heap, the super at Cove apartment complex, a man who has faded into the monotomy of everyday life to hide a tragic secret. His life is about to change with the arrival of Story (the luminous Bryce Dallas Howard), a mysterious visitor from the swimming pool. Cleveland slowly discovers that she is a “narf”, a race of people from the “blue world”, who is on a quest to save her world using the powers of the Cove’s residents. If only it was that simple.
Lady in the Water is a film, like Shyamalan’s previous effort The Village, which will polarise audiences into “love it, or hate it” categories. It is a film that requires a lot of investment from its audience, and a huge suspension of disbelief. Paul Giamatti is our guide through this bedtime story, and it is highly recommended (and hopefully intentional on the directors part) that the viewer accepts what’s developing onscreen in the same way that the protagonist does. Ask very few questions because none of the major characters do, and the emotional and dramatic payoff is worth it.
The difficulty in accepting the pomposity and ridiculous nature of the dialogue and the unquestioning behaviour of the characters is down to the contemporary setting. Base the tale in Middle-Earth and have the words spoken by mythical beasts and it would fit, but having such words come out of the mouths of everyday folk makes Lady in the Water a hard sell.
There is no doubting that with his impressive back catalogue, both critically and commercially, Shyamalan is one of modern cinema's greatest storytellers. Lady originates from a tale that he once told his own children and it may have been easier to simply translate that to the screen. Attempting to juggle issues such as faith, war, and social indifference as well as some of his personal demons (the role of the film critic isn’t very subtle) is difficult to do when you make the core plot thread as convoluted as Lady is.
The acting ensemble, however, is fantastic. Standouts are Giamatti, who is brilliant as the man so desperate to find meaning in his life that he is willing to believe anything, while Bryce Dallas Howard continues her ascension to the top of her trade with an understated role as the narf, both Cleveland and Shyamalan’s muse. The only mis-step is the director casting himself in a pivotal role (which the studio also weren’t happy about).
Lady in the Water is a brave movie from a director whose films are always stunningly and effortlessly aesthetic, and never less than stimulating in terms of plot. From the moment the lights go down and the crude matchstick men exposition sequence explains the origins of the narf just try and get carried away - believe in it a little and you will enjoy.