Lady in the Water Review
Aren’t bedtime stories great? At the end of a long day, there’s nothing quite like being able to sit back for half an hour to throw away all the cares of the world and settle down to a good yarn. For a child, it guarantees their dreams are full of weird and wonderful things, for a parent it’s a way of opening their offspring’s imagination up to an infinity of possibilities, and for an adult it’s a way of temporarily escaping the hardships of life for a world other than their own. The importance of that half hour is something that director M Night Shyamalan recognises, which is hardly surprising given he’s one of cinema’s most recognised story-tellers. He tells his own children magical and mystical tales before turning out their lights and in Lady in the Water he adapts one of those of those narratives to create a fully grown-up movie which nevertheless still comes with the tagline "A Bedtime Story." This could have been a bit of a danger: as any number of publishers will tell you, just because little Timmy loves the made-up tales you spin him doesn’t mean millions of other people will like them too. Calling something specifically a bedtime story might also be asking for trouble; in my experience, I've always found that the best nocturnal tales were just normal books that weren’t specifically designed for that purpose whereas any tome that had such a specific title as “Stories for Bedtime” were invariably dull and uninspired affairs involving pixies and little elves that could. There’s a whiff of pretension about giving a film that legend: even in this day and age of portable DVD players, movies are not really designed to be consumed under the covers as one is dropping off to sleep. Could his tale really translate from that cosy domestic arrangement to the cold, unsentimental realm of the cinema?
When the film was first announced, people said that it sounded like a serious version of Splash the light-hearted Tom Hanks/Darryl Hannah mermaid film from 1984, but in actuality it turned out to be something different and far more subtle. The film follows the sad figure of Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a building superintendent for an apartment block called The Cove, a man with a tragic past from which he is trying to hide from. The block is full of weird and wonderful inhabitants, including a sinister recluse, a group of stoned slackers and a Korean immigrant and her hip young daughter. One night a new inhabitant walks into Cleveland’s life, but unlike most people who come through the entrance the mysterious Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) enters via the communal swimming pool. Turns out she’s what's known as a "Narf" (or fin-less mermaid to you and me) and she’s one of many sent to dry land for… some purpose or other, only now she’s being chased by an evil Scrunt (snigger), or wolf as we’d know it, who wants to rip her throat out. To help her return to her watery kingdom Cleveland must reinterpret an old Korean folk story and recruit the disparate members of the apartment block to carry out an elaborate ritual to fend off the Scrunt and send Story on her way.
For years Shyamalan has been cinema’s golden boy. Following the success of his breakthrough film The Sixth Sense in 1999 he has been given carte blanche by Buena Vista to make his films, movies such as Signs and The Village which have almost uniquely been able to pull the punters in despite eschewing much of what makes popular cinema what it is. Unlike much of mainstream Hollywood product his films are slow, thoughtful, intelligent, demanding of their audience concentration and in turn rewarding it by not treating them like a bunch of morons. He’s almost unique in being an auteur whose films consistently do well at the box office, and while he’s compared to Steven Spielberg there’s really little to connect them other than a distinctive style and a recurring theme of family. However, as time has gone on there have been more rumblings about his output, and the distant sound of critics sharpening their knives as they prepare for the inevitable backlash. His last film The Village (2204) worried some people. Even more than his previous work, it seemed mannered, oblique and at times lethargic. There was a suspicion, although not one followed through, that it was too indulgent, that there wasn’t as much depth to it as it thought there was, while the final reel twist divided people more than any of his previous releases. For my part I thought it was a good ending that was badly botched in its delivery, and the film as a whole decent but could have done with a good twenty minutes chopped off.
The disquiet surrounding The Village then promptly exploded after he announced that his next project would be Lady. When Nina Jacobson, the President of Buena Vista and his lead cheerleader for many years, was handed the film's script she panicked as, frankly, she didn’t think it was very good. All the problems of The Village were, in her opinion, magnified: it was dull, self-important and turgid with none of the redeeming qualities of his previous work. They had a very public row, Shyamalan stormed off, and a book was written about the fracturing of his relationship with the studio, The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale by Michael Bamberger. Shyamalan went it alone, and a year later the movie, his movie, was finally released the way he wanted it. The critics, torn between admiration of a man determined to achieve his own vision over corporate interference and Shyamalan’s increased sense of his own worth, watched with baited breath... and then tore it apart. Jacobson was right, they declared, it is indulgent rubbish of the highest order, full of meaningless longueurs and nonsensical folklore. To be fair, one got the feeling at the time that the baskets of tomatoes and rotten eggs were being lined up even before anyone had seen a single frame. Indeed, it’s only now, a few months down the road, that one can view the thing a little more dispassionately, and evaluate it without the attending hype. DVD is perhaps a more suitable home for Lady: it is, at its heart, a very gentle film, one that asks its audiences to open up their imaginations and take wonder at the infinite possibilities that are out there, look beyond the material and marvel at the power of story (literally), but one which has its moments of pure folly.
Unfortunately, despite what appear to be genuinely good intentions in regards to its content, thematically it’s a bit of a mess as the narrative seems to have two completely opposite morals. On the one hand, it makes the important point that it’s okay to imagine, to open one’s mind up to possibilities beyond the end of the corridor, that there’s more to the world than we can see and that only the mind can truly unlock the wonders of existence. That’s fine and dandy, but in its hero it’s also saying that running away from the reality of existence is not the way to go, that one has to embrace the pain as well as the pleasure of life, no matter how hard or cold it is. The coda sees its two protagonists heading off in contrary directions: Story flies back to her make-believe world of wonder and light, but poor old Cleveland is left having to face up to the death of his family for the first time. Only then, he realises, can he turn the corner and escape the fantasy world he is living in now. He’s not really a building supervisor for a stultifying apartment block, he’s just playacting at it: he’s actually, we discover, a doctor who lost in his family in tragic circumstances and still can't face that pain. So on the one hand we have a heroine called Story telling us narrative is all, on the other Cleveland who shows the audience that at some point we have to remove our heads from the clouds and take a good hard look at life in all its many guises. Great. Some bedtime story that is.
This ill-thought-through theme extends to the actual narrative itself. Perhaps understandably given it began life as an improvised tale at the end of his kid’s bed, it meanders at times, apparently struggling just to know where it’s heading. There’s one section in the middle of the film that is almost completely pointless, the first failed attempt to return Story serving no purpose other than to have her attacked by the Scrunt and to point out how rubbish critics actually are. Cleveland is told by Mrs Choi (June Kyoto Lu), his oracle of all things Narf, that he has to gather together a group of people, all of whom fulfil a certain function in Story’s life. There’s the Guild, the Healer and so on, an exercise in narrative deconstruction that seems to be pointing out the bleeding obvious. The problem is, Cleveland has two goes at this, and the first time around he picks the wrong people. So the last twenty minutes end up being a rehash of the previous twenty as he gathers together a new group and has another go.
The regrettable thing is that even though the story itself is deeply problematical, the way in which it is told is seductive and attractive. Whatever else one could say about Shyamalan, he is certainly a skilled movie maker and here once again he creates work that looks and sounds first rate. He seduces us into his world, slowly (very slowly) drawing us in and surrounding us with the atmosphere of the piece, enveloping his audience in his world. The central location, the apartment block (which was especially built for the film) is a memorable setting, an apparently anonymous and blank-faced structure that somehow has a life to it despite its sterile and uncompromising façade. The pool at its base gives it life, as does the fact it looks out on untamed vegetation, the world from which Story comes. Shyamalan brings it, and his character alive and creates an atmosphere far richer than the seemingly unpromising ingredients could suggest. He evokes feelings at once instantly familiar to anyone who has seen his previous work, but in its current setting unique to this one movie, one which is positive and hopeful despite the adversity of the world. Artistically shot, there are many visual motifs that stand out, whether it be the pool itself, Story or just the various inhabitants enacting their roles in the drama (indeed, the only time the visuals are let down are whenever CGI intrudes: the Scrunt never quite blends with its surroundings, while the climax, purposefully viewed through the ripples of the water, is disappointing). Together with the quietly moving (if somewhat derivative) score from James Newton Howard it's a gently absorbing mood piece that, even when the narrative lets it down, is still beguiling.
It's a point even the most virulent of critiques could not ignore. Indeed, most of the critical raspberries directed at the movie stemmed from two sources. Both are legitimate concerns. The first is the character of Harry Farber. Played by Bob Balaban, he is a sour movie critic who finds flaws in everything he sees and fails to comprehend the deeper meaning of what he is watching (at one point Cleveland has to explain to him the reason why a lot of romantic films end up with a couple kissing in the rain). This is an unsubtle dig at Shyamalan’s own critics, one which would have been perhaps bearable if he had painted Farber as anything other a two-dimensional hate figure, one so self-satisfied he deconstructs his own death at the hands of the Scrunt (the silliest moment in the film and one which feels it's wandered in from another movie entirely). As a critique of the critics it is naïve and petulant: suggesting that no critic ever has merit and never gets what a filmmaker is trying to do is plain wrong, the equivalent of a child sticking its fingers in his ears and singing “Can’t hear you, can’t hear you.” If that character wasn’t in the film, I could believe that the stories about Shyamalan’s increasing paranoia and refusal to listen to constructive criticism were at best exaggerated, but with its inclusion it just seems to confirm them. As with much else of the film, it’s a character who could have served a useful purpose: one of the more pleasing aspects in the movie is how nearly everyone Cleveland confides in about Story instantly believes him, a validation of the theme that we should let our imaginations go free. Having this guy not believing would have been a valid counter to that, a thematic villain of the piece to join with the literal villain in the Scrunt (snigger) but ultimately Farber is so peripheral to the tale as to be disposable, his scenes adding nothing to the tale being told.
The second problem comes with Shyamalan’s casting of himself in an extensive role. Previous films have seen him making extended cameos which, while indulgent, were essentially harmless. This time he takes a substantial role as - get this - a writer who believes his work won’t be appreciated in his lifetime, one who has doubts and is struggling to complete his masterpiece. Hooray, one initially thinks, some humility! Only, there isn’t, because by the end of the film Story has told him that his book will influence world events and will be considered Very Important, but that he will have to Die For His Art, at which point your reviewer very nearly vomited. That's bad enough, but an even bigger problem is that while Shyamalan looks the part, he makes a rotten actor, a veritable charisma vacuum who sucks the life out of any scene he appears in. It’s hard to pin down exactly why this is as he’s certainly photogenic and is essentially playing himself, but he makes the screen an extended void whenever he appears. Whenever one sees him in interview he’s always entertaining and interesting to listen to, and doesn’t have any problems in being an enjoyable screen presence, so it’s an odd phenomenon. Together with Balaban's character, these two issues leave an unpleasantly sour taste in a film which, otherwise, comes across as good hearted.
Fortunately Shyamalan is the one weak link in an otherwise solid cast. It’s swiftly become a cliché to cast Giamatti as a down-trodden everyman but there’s no denying he has the character down pat. Perhaps too pat: at times in the film he appears to be on automatic pilot and while it’s a typically sturdy performance which is never less than enjoyable to watch, he doesn’t bring anything new to the character that we haven’t seen him do before, although this isn’t helped by the fact the character is far less nuanced than similar characters in, say, Sideways or American Splendour. He has an attractively quirky chemistry with Howard’s Story, paternalistic rather than sexual, and the one truly notable bow to his playing of Cleveland is that one can instantly believe how devoted he becomes to Story and saving her. This is despite the fact there is very little build-up in their relationship, which seems to emerge from the pool fully formed, as though he has been waiting for her arrival all his life (which, of course, in a way he has). As for Howard herself, she suffers from being underused and is required to do little other than look ethereal and act vulnerable, something she does fine but is hardly a stretch. Shyamalan seems to have a thing about focusing on her bare legs, the significance of which I couldn’t fathom other than showing her exposure to the elements (perhaps he’s just fascinated by the fact she’s a mermaid with no fins?) and she brings a definite ghostly presence to proceedings, but ultimately she’s a bit of a cipher, one whose vulnerability is not as endearing as one might expect. (Perhaps this is a result of having it rammed down our throat throughout the film; unsubtly she spends much of the second half of the movie naked in the shower, which seems like overkill). Of the secondary characters, Cindy Cheung is sparky as the expositional character who translates for Cleveland her mother’s folk tales (is it an intentional gag that the Exposition Character - something the deconstruction of Story doesn’t actually cover - is split into two, with one character having to translate the other’s words?) and Balaban is enjoyably narked in his thankless role, but the characters one finds oneself responding to the most, simply because they are the most real, are Sarita Choudhury as Shyamalan’s worried sister and Jeffrey Wright as the first interpreter of Story’s messages. In all though, the cast is fine and all bring a dose of humanity into a film which initially looks like being a variation of Rear Window before going on to develop The Cove's inhabitants more than one might expect.
But in the end one has to come back to the central story itself - after all, that is advertised as being the primary focus - and that is a let down, and Shyamalan's least satisfying screenplay to date. As an examination of narrative it’s half-hearted and has some confused conclusions, and as a bedtime story it’s ultimately unsatisfying. Just because a tale has a mermaid in it doesn’t automatically qualify it for good night time reading, nor does giving them quasi-mythical names that end up being, if you will excuse the pun, a little bit narf. It’s easy to see what Shyamalan is trying to do: tell a mythic story that is perhaps not meant to be taken literally while simultaneously examining what makes such legends potent. It's an interesting aim that one desperately wants to work but he doesn't pull it off. However, to call the movie a write-off is unfair: the actual skill in which he tells his tale is not in question which, together with the cast, ensure watching the movie is not a completely wasted experience. The criticism the film garnered on its release was a little over the top: it’s certainly a flawed work, but if it’s self-absorbed it’s in a good way. Despite the odd whiffs of pretension and petulance - the critic, the self-casting - the most important impression one comes away with is that Shyamalan believes in what he’s doing, he feels it passionately and is driven solely by a desire to impart his tale on the world. That fidelity is far more important than was recognised on its release and, together with its excellent cast and seductive look, save the thing from being a washout. It’s his least satisfying film since his breakthrough with The Sixth Sense but it’s an interesting failure nonetheless, one which allows us to see into his heart and as such we should not be surprised if it is as complex and contradictory as all human hearts are: on the one hand impatient and unwilling to listen to good advice, but on the other determined to evoke in others the same emotions and beliefs he himself has.
However, this is not to say that the director is not at a dangerous crossroads. One Lady in the Water is fair enough, but another would signify a worrying downward trend. It’s a concern he won’t have learnt his lessons and will continue to believe in himself without question, and if he does it could be to the detriment of his career. Ultimately the story of the making of the film, and Shyamalan’s role within that, is much like Cleveland Heep himself, pattering along at its own pace with shields raised, aware that the world is battering at the hatches trying to get in but determined to ignore it and hide away in its own corner. It’s an irony, however, that in the end Cleveland accepts that this isn’t a life for him, that at some point he has to unlock the door and allow it back in, facing the consequences come what may. I wonder if his creator will do the same?
The movie is presented on a single disc in a 1.85:1 format with twenty-eight chapters. The disc opens with a language selection screen for either English or Chinese. There then follows trailers for A Scanner Darkly and The Reaping of which only the former can be skipped through. The Main Menu is simple but pleasingly reflects the atmosphere of the film, with an overhead view of the pool gently undulating over the film’s score. The four options are Play Movie, Scene Selections, Special Features and Languages. If one lingers for a couple of minutes the film begins playing automatically. Submenus are silent and illustrated with stills from the film.
The film itself and all extras, with the perennial exception of the trailers, are subtitled.
Generally very nice. The cinematography of the film is very important, with much of its atmosphere coming from its cool, muted colours and the disc handles that well, with a richness of image that is rewarding to watch. However, every so often the quality of the video seem to dip, with sudden rashes of digital artefacting cropping up to spoil things, which is a shame as otherwise it looks good.
The ethereal music provides a nice base for the film’s soundtrack and comes across well, subtly worming its way into your living room as you watch. The actual soundtrack itself is fairly unremarkable, and during scenes in which the characters decide to speak in whispers - quite a lot in Cleveland’s case - I found myself having to strain to hear what was being said even with the volume turned up.
Lady in the Water: A Bedtime Story (5:01)
Shyamalan talks about his literary version of the film, an attractively illustrated children’s book with a simplified version of the movie which appears to concentrate on the mythology of the Narfs. This looks like being far better than the screen version, focused purely on the young ‘uns and awakening their imagination, and even in the brief running time of this featurette one gets a far clearer idea of what Shyamalan was trying to do than the whole of his movie. It’s that old story: good book, shame about the film.
Reflections of Lady in the Water (34:46)
Making Of which is split into several chapters (Intro and the Script, The Characters, The Look, The Location, The Creatures and Post and Closing), each of which can be viewed individually or as part of the whole. An average affair which like the movie takes itself far too seriously - cast and crew talk so much blather about the film’s deepest meaning that after a while one turns off - and only vaguely alludes to the controversies surrounding it. Dull.
Montage of actors auditioning for the “vomiting in the pool scene” make up the majority of these two minutes, and is about as much fun as it sounds, ie not very.
Gag Reel (3:15)
I hate gag reels. After months on a film set, it’s hardly surprising that a few minutes of vaguely amusing footage can be found and strung together to entertain the crew at the wrap party, but surely the thing is they only entertain because they were there, and part of it. It’s like watching a party you haven’t been invited to. Anyway, for those who like this sort of thing this is fine.
Deleted Scenes (5:02)
The most substantial of the scenes included here is an extended conversation between Cleveland and Story which develops the former’s character a little more. Otherwise these are disposal but harmless.
Both the teaser trailer (1:45) and full theatrical trailer (shorter at 1:34) are included. In the former Story is hinted at but not spied, while she takes centre stage in the latter, a trailer that lists Shyamalan’s previous films but doesn’t include any sign of his extensive role in this one.
Ahh, I remember the good old days when all DVD releases were like this, a single disc with the film and a decent collection of minor extras. This disc shows that for many films a two-disc set is unnecessary: it does its job perfectly well and, with the disappointing exception of no commentary, one comes away from it without feeling that anything particular is missing.