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Having dramatically split from Disney after they failed to share his enthusiasm for Lady in the Water, M Night Shyamalan moved to Warner Bros to produce his pet project. Based on a bedtime story he created for his children, was its under-performance at the box office justified, or did he create a classic underrated fantasy?

Feature


Paul Giamatti plays Cleveland Heep, a janitor with a past who rescues a young woman called Story from the swimming pool at the apartment block where he lives and works. He discovers that the young woman, played by The Village alumnus Bryce Dallas Howard, is a water nymph that is visiting from the ‘Blue World’ to do good deeds for her land-dwelling counterparts. Cleveland and the other residents have to work together to get her back home while protecting her from the creatures determined to stop her going home.

Lady In The Water
‘You’ll never work in this town again’ is an old Hollywood cliché and had Lady In The Water been Shyamalan’s debut feature, he may have found it difficult to follow it up given the friends he lost along the way. As it stands, he has enough successes to his name already and his next project will no doubt get picked up by one studio or another, although Disney are unlikely to oblige and even Warner Bros may give him a wide berth when he pitches his sophomore effort for the studio.

It undoubtedly sounded like a great idea in the beginning: a master storyteller adapts his kids’ favourite bedtime story into a big budget fantasy tale for all the family. However, something got lost in translation between lights out for Shyamalan juniors and lights out in movie theatres. There are elements of a good story and it’s obvious which parts would compel his children to stay awake to hear more, but Shyamalan has heavily laced it with vitriol against movie critics and thinly veiled nods to his own self-importance. In Lady in the Water he has replaced his usual Hitchcock-esque cameo appearance with a full supporting role as a writer who finds out that what he is working on is so important that it will change the world forever. Following stiff opposition from the producers of his previous features, the inclusion of this theme smacks of the actions of either a spoiled child throwing his toys out of his pram or an egomaniac with a huge chip on his shoulder.

Lady In The Water
Bob Balaban’s appearance as a film critic serves only to allow the writer/director to vent his spleen about the state of cinema today and try to play with genre conventions. The problem with including this character is that his improbable monologues take the film in a completely different direction and I felt myself being taken out of the film, especially in one pivotal scene near the end. The character is so aware that he is in a film and not ‘the real world’ that it borders on parody on a par with Airplane!.

What I liked about Shyamalan’s earlier films, especially The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, was that everything going on in the story and on the screen felt part of a consistent whole. When the final twist came, everything was drawn together and made sense, but for the first time he has spared us a mega-twist ending. I’m not sure whether it’s because of this or the fact that it was inspired by a bedtime story that evolved over many months or years, but it has the distinct feeling that the writer is making it up as he goes along. This may be okay if it leads to uncharted territories and unpredictable diversions, but in this case it means that some characters, in particular Story, spend a lot of screen time explaining plot devices to the detriment of the action on screen. A prime example is the scene where Heep confronts a scrunt for the first time. For me, all tension was lost because Story was on the other end of a walkie-talkie telling him exactly how to stop the monster attacking him.

Lady In The Water
There are some positive things to say about Lady in the Water, though. James Newton Howard’s music is an enjoyable fantasy score and the set design is impressive. The cast all do their best with the screenplay they were given, especially the always watchable Giamatti, but it’s difficult to believe in the characters when they just accept a water nymph into their world without really questioning her existence and attempt to find their way in the world using crossword puzzles. All in all, I’d have to say that any plus points of Lady in the Water are in spite of Shyamalan’s involvement rather than as a direct result of it.

Video


Lady in the Water is presented with a 16:9 anamorphic picture. The picture is clean, especially in close-up shots, however the external shots by the swimming pool are foggy and the background loses detail at times. As expected, there is no dirt or scratches but areas of grain and compression are noticeable at times, again in the foggy scenes.

Lady In The Water

Audio


The Dolby 5.1 EX track is the only audio option and it performs well. There is decent use of directional sound, with plenty of rain effects coming through the surround channels. As I mentioned above, the score is a highlight of the film, compensating for the lack of any real emotion and here it is enjoyably clean and powerful.

Extras


‘Lady in the Water: A Bedtime Story’ goes into detail with the director about the genesis of the story. He also talks about the release of the story as a children’s book. I would have liked to see some kind of comparison between the plots of the film and the book. I would bet that the book doesn’t go off on the same tangents as the film and is more rewarding, especially for children.

‘Reflections of Lady in the Water’ is a making-of featurette in six parts. It tracks the adaptation of the story into a screenplay, how the actors got on board and how the film was made, including behind the scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew. This is the extra with the most ‘meat on the bones’ but doesn’t touch on the controversy surrounding the production.

Lady In The Water
Both the gag reel and deleted scenes are very short and were surely only included so more extra features could be noted on the DVD cover. The deleted scenes themselves offer little additional interest and they aren’t even complete: the last one ends with a hint of more to come. Two trailers (teaser and theatrical) round out the slim set of extras and the stark difference in tone between them hints at some difficulty pitching the film to the potential audience. Maybe if this disc sells well there will be a special edition in the near future with more in-depth extras, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Overall


Lady in the Water is a story that has a great premise, but the execution is bogged down by unstoppable exposition and an unrealistic screenplay fuelled by one man’s ego. Those unsure whether to pick it up or not will not be convinced by the lean set of extras on offer here. This is one for Shyamalan completists only, which is surely a club with a dwindling membership both in Hollywood and cinemas everywhere.


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