Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Lady in the Water

directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Lady in the Water poster  
This movie starts out with a legend about an ancient race of water-dwellers, recounted using stick figures. The myth is one of those moralising tales about how greedy, venal and unthinking people are, and how we've forgotten how to listen. But once in a while someone will come from the water world, at great risk to themselves, to teach us how to be wiser and generally less pathetic.

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) seems like a very ordinary guy. He's the caretaker of an apartment building, a stuttering and softly-spoken everyman. One night he notices someone swimming in the pool he looks after, but when he investigates he nearly ends up drowning himself. Luckily for him he's saved by Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a peculiar young woman who turns out to be a sea-nymph, or narf. However this isn't a mermaid tale: Story has normal legs, more or less pink skin, and no gills. She looks human, even when underwater, so at least we know this isn't going to be a re-hash of Splash.

Bryce Dallas Howard depicts Story as a nervous and naive creature who is both childlike and intense. A lot of the dialogue between Story and Cleveland is urgently whispered, as though to give her a less everyday quality. A few special effects might have done the job more convincingly, and the lack of them does seem to leave a gap in this movie.

Lady in the Water isn't entirely free of effects, however. The narf is hunted by a wolf-like creature known as a scrunt that lies camouflaged in the grass. The scrunt in turn is hunted by other supernatural beasties. But what little we see of these creatures appears incongruous with the look of the rest of the movie. Story has only a short time to complete her mission and avoid falling prey to the scrunt before she leaves. But she has a laundry-list of people to connect with first, and the essential mystery involves working out who she must meet, and who will fulfil each of the essential roles in this drama.

Cleveland knows everyone in the apartments, but he's still at a loss to figure out who Story is looking for in order to bring enlightenment to the world. The campus is home to a collection of oddballs, but it's not until we meet its newest resident, Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), that Shyamalan's subtext becomes painfully clear. Harry Farber is supposed to be a respected book and film critic, but he's an uptight little man who seems to hate everything he lays his eyes upon. He turns out to be a know-nothing idiot devoid of all the usual common sense, and this crude portrayal of his character is one of the lowest points of the whole film. Shyamalan may have felt a grudge against some critics, given the poor reception he's had for movies such as The Village, but his beef with them doesn't make good subject matter for a film. And that's all this is: amidst prophecies about enlightenment and the narf's search for a groundbreaking writer, and even the narf's name, it all boils down to a metaphorical whinge about some nasty reviews. In case there were any doubt, M. Night Shyamalan even casts himself as Vick Ran, a character who is, you guessed it, an author.

So here's another negative review to add to Shyamalan's list of grievances. Lady in the Water wavers from being pretentious and dull to ridiculously saccharine and over-melodramatic. It's blurred camera shots and whispered prophecies are no substitute for a decent effects budget, so as a fantasy this has all the atmosphere of the vacuum of deep space. The characters are unreasonably credulous, willing to take the word of a sickly-looking woman who claims to be a sea nymph with a special purpose, as though that sort of thing happens all the time. But ultimately what makes Lady in the Water fall flat is its insistence on taking this self-indulgent tripe far, far too seriously.

Film Details

Year: 2006

Categories: Films


Classification: 12

If you like this, try:

Mirrormask cover    

Mirrormask by Dave McKean
Weirdness abounds in this story of a girl, her mother, and a very peculiar dream.

1 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

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