Lady in the Water Movie Review
Written by Rosie Fletcher
Film released by Warner Brothers
Written and directed by M Night Shyamalan
2006, 110 minutes, Rated PG (UK)
Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep
Bryce Dallas Howard as Story
Jeffrey Wright as Mr. Dury
Bob Balaban as Mr. Farber
Sarita Choudhury as Anna Ran
Cindy Cheung as Young Soon
M. Night Shyamalan as Vick
Freddy Rodríguez as Reggie
Bill Irwin as Mr. Leeds
Mary Beth Hurt as Mrs. Bell
Noah Gray-Cabey as Joey Dury
Lonely apartment janitor Cleveland (Paul Giamatti – Sideways, American Splendour) discovers a young woman has been living in a room hidden under the apartment swimming pool. The young woman is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard – The Village, Mandalay), and she is a “narf” — a nymph-like creature on a mission. Cleveland and the residents of the apartment must help Story find a way to get home whilst avoiding the attacks of the hyena-like “scrunts”. In doing so, they find they’re all part of a legend unfolding in their own backyard.
If you’ve seen the trailers for Lady in the Water and read taglines like “It’s not in the closet, it’s not under the bed, it’s in the backyard”, you’d be forgiven for expecting another horror-lite movie with a surprise ending, in the style of The Sixth Sense and The Village. The viral advertising such as this (have a go, it’s quite fun) only serves as reinforcement. This way disappointment lies.
Let’s be clear: this is not a horror, or even a spooky drama. It’s a bedtime story, a children's fantasy film along the lines of Harry Potter and Narnia (Bryce Dallas Howard even takes hair and make-up tips from Tilda Swinton’s Ice Queen).
I was fortunate enough to get the chance to ask M Night Shyamalan why this “bedtime story” was being promoted as a horror film and he said:
“Rosie, mate” (ok, he didn’t actually say that bit, but the next bit he really did say in response to my question)
“This film has a lot of elements of different genres, it’s not of one genre and it has unusual language and so it’s difficult to sell. The promoter picked up on one aspect of the film and they pushed that, but hopefully people will come to see the film and get much more than that — they’ll get fantasy and humour as well as the horror aspect”.
There must be a lot of pressure on M Night Shyamalan — he’s one of only a small number of directors who can open a film based on his name alone, but we want him to make slightly spooky films with twisty plots and lots of surprises. We all keep hoping for something as good as The Sixth Sense, and we all keep being vaguely disappointed. Lady in the Water is no different, but it’s not completely without merit either.
Lady in the Water is concerned with magical creatures and the rather complicated set of rules governing them. Despite the advertising I say it’s a children’s film. This is partly because the story was originally devised by Shyamalan for his children and because it has elements of fantasy and fairytale that might appeal to children, but also because the language and the rules are very much reminiscent of childhood “rule based” play. The logic behind how the “scrunts” can hide in your garden is only slightly less silly than the logic behind how elephants can hide in cherry trees, and the huge amounts of exposition necessary in the first half of the film feel like someone explaining the rules of chess to a child:
A narf is drawn to a vessel. The narf must see the vessel and the vessel will then go on to do something important. Then the narf can go home via the Great Eatlon (but only at a specific time). Humans aren’t allowed to watch the narf going home unless they’re the guardian, the interpreter, the healer or the guild. Scrunts want to kill the narf and will try to do so at every opportunity; however they can’t on the day that the great Eatlon comes because the tartutic will get them. A scrunt also can’t attack can’t if a guardian is looking them in the eye, however, a human can only initially see the scrunt backwards in a mirror. If the narf is a special kind of executive narf the rules change and the scrunt will still try to get the narf even when the Great Eatlon is around, regardless of the tartutic. Why? Well, just because that’s the rules. You might as well ask why a bishop can only move diagonally.
Bryce Dallas Howard is ethereal enough to make an excellent narf. She doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue, and what she does have is rather too earnest and sincere. But she does a great line in looking damp and pallid and not-of-this-world. Darling of the independent film circuit, Paul Giamatti, is the perfect low-key everyman. Some of his lines are pretty cheesy, but he manages to carry off his role as the damaged underachiever with finesse. With Story, Cleveland is touchingly paternal, and she’s convincingly vulnerable.
Shyamalan himself has a bigger role in Lady in the Water than in his other films, and he’s faced a certain amount of criticism for this. To be fair, he’s not given himself a very interesting or varied role, and I had no issues with his performance.
Bob Balaban, as the film critic Mr. Farber, is also worth a mention. He takes the role of the Greek chorus in the film, discussing the structure and patterns in plot and character, of stories in general, but also of this particularly tale, thereby drawing attention to the elements of fable and legend. You also get a strong sense that Shyamalan is making a point about plot and plot twists: in the scene where the critic is rather coldly dispatched he explains the typical rules and patterns of events that govern the deaths of incidental character in “family” horror films just before those rules are pointedly broken. This adds a post-modern element to the film which I’m yet to be convinced about. I was also rather unconvinced by the damning of the film critic for having the “arrogance” to make assumptions and judgements about people. To Shyamalan I say “handbag!” being a film critic shouldn’t be punishable by death, thank you very much. Balaban’s slight frame and permanently troubled demeanour made Mr Farber too sympathetic a character for me to buy the idea that he was really a bad person and not just someone a little sad and a little lonely.
Outside the main “fairytale” of Story the narf, there are two subplots, both of which were entirely out of place. The first — Cleveland’s tragic past — was utterly unnecessary and added nothing to the character. The second — Story’s prediction of the impact of Vick’s book — wasn’t a bad idea, per se, but didn’t belong in this film. It was skirted over and was nothing more than a distraction. Lose these elements, tone down the demise of the critic, big up the special effects and give the monkeys and the eagle a whole lot more screen time and you’ll have a passable fantasy film with an excellent cast.
The film is at its best when it retains its sense of fun. There were a number of very funny lines and some original and amusing ideas. Placing mythological messages in the pictures on cereal packets was a nice detail, I thought, and the points at which the film is gently self-mocking (I’m thinking particularly of the stoners trying to make up their own words) work well. However, too often it forgets its inner child, stops being playful, and returns to tired earnestness, unsurprising twists and cheap shocks.
In his introduction to Lady in the Water, Shyamalan dedicated the film to his children. A better film maker might have taken a bigger leap and made them script consultants.
This was a cinema screening so picture, sound and extras will not be rated.