Friday, 18 June 2010

For Your Consideration...No.8

Lady In The Water

Anna Ran: "He's hearing the voice of God through a crossword puzzle."

So, I have a confession to make. For a long time now i've been a detractor of M. Night Shyamalan, the so-called 'visionary' who has 'lost his way'. The Sixth Sense (1999)? Nope. Predictable, unscary and far too weighty for its own good. Unbreakable (2000)? Better, but still just a bag of contrivances hung on a strong lead performance. Signs (2002)? This one I liked for the most part but it's let down by gargantuan plot holes and a silly finale. The Village (2004)? Lets not even pretend that one had fans. But then we come to an anomaly. Something I haven't been admitting, that sits in the back of my mind. Shyamalan hasn't managed to sustain my peaked interest (The Happening, 2008, is beyond absurd) but I actually like Lady In The Water (2006). It was thrashed by the critics, had the weakest opening weekend of a Shyamalan film up to that point and his fans started lashing back angrily - the film still has a mere 25% on the website Rotten Tomatoes. Everyone hates this movie. But I don't. I, the critic who once described Shyamalan as a "trumpet blowing bean counter", likes Lady In The Water. One paragraph in and I imagine his fans are already up in arms. This won't be easy...

Now let me make two things clear. Firstly, I'm not about to make a case for Lady In The Water being perfect or some misunderstood masterpiece. It has flaws. Big, annoying flaws and I will get around to them. Secondly, despite my dislike of Shyamalan as a filmmaker I have to commend his vision. Because it's very rare that an auteur will get as big a platform to leap on as Shyamalan does and even when he makes a bad movie he's at least trying to do something original. He's at least using his imagination, and the passion behind every project is clearly on screen, sometimes to the point of distraction. And it's exactly for this second reason that Lady In The Water works and so many 'mainstream' audiences were put off. It's an auteurist fairytale. A complete, unhindered vision so personal that Shyamalan was unwilling to compromise and subsequently severed a relationship with Disney. It has some really silly moments and even reading the words "narf" "scrunt" or "tarturic" may make some giggle. But this is an honest, magical world and Shyamalan, for once, isn't asking you to believe it. He's asking you to absorb it and take it into your heart. And if you do you might end up like me by the end credits. A little bit misty eyed.

The story sees handyman Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti) one night stumbling upon a lady in the swimming pool at the apartment complex where he works. She has a scar on her leg and describes herself as a 'Narf' which by aid of his neighbors Cleveland soon learns is a sea nymph. The story unfolds to reveal a grassy monster called a Scrunt is stalking the nearby forest in the hope of catching this Narf (named Story, played by Bryce Dallas Howard) before she can be taken away by a giant eagle called the Great Eatlon. Before she can be taken away the Narf must make contact with an unknown writer whose words will one day change the world. Cleveland, whose past holds a great tragedy, commits himself to helping Story and getting her home safely. From there the way things unfold are both annoying and uplifting. And i'll start with the bad stuff.

One character in the apartment complex is Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), a snobbish movie critic arrogant enough to "presume the intention of another human being" and supposedly included to comfort Shyamalan after all the critical floggings he's had. The critic is very intentionally made to look like a fool and his demise (which even he makes obvious from the very beginning) is the low point of the movie. After returning from a romantic comedy ("why does everyone stand around and talk in the rain in movies?") he foretells his own fate by saying "characters were walking around saying their thoughts out loud". Shyamalan then takes it upon himself to be ever so clever and face the critic up against the Scrunt. Cowering in fear the critic is made to eat his words when he stands and literally narrates his own death - "my god, this is like a moment from a horror movie. This is precisely the moment where the mutation or beast will attempt to kill an unlikable side character". And then the Scrunt leaps upon him. Shyamalan literally devouring his critics is not big. It's not clever. It's sadly petty and ruins the movie, especially when he then goes on to laugh in the face of the critical corpse by setting the last scene in the rain. But of course as Shyamalan (*ahem* Cleveland) points out, it could be "a metaphor for purification". It's an unprecedented level of smarminess made all the worse for Shyamalan casting himself as the visionary author Story seeks, who will one day become a martyr so that his words can change the world. As illusions of grandeur go it's the stunningly false and egotistical sort that would make Tarantino blush.

Bob Balaban as Harry Farber

The other problems I have with the movie are typical of Shyamalan's indulgence of imagination. While I commend him for having clarity of vision and strength of conviction there are ideas that just don't work - a prime example being Reggie (Freddy Rodriguez) a body-builder who only works on one side of his body as a scientific experiment. Therefore, through some very strange prosthetics, Freddy looks like an ordinary guy on the left side of his body and Sylvester Stallone on the right. Every time he pops onscreen involuntary laughter erupts, and it's no different come his eventual significance to the plot. As the story progresses and becomes slightly sillier the entire apartment block bands together to help Story get home. One person needed is a Symbolist who will reveal the way to summon the Great Eatlon. The symbolist is revealed to be the son of a man named Dury (Jeffrey Wright) and he is able to read the magical instructions... in cereal boxes. It's 'the' Shyamalan moment that seemingly all his movies have to contain (Mark Wahlberg negotiating with a potted plant in The Happening remains his finest work in this department) and it's the exact moment where you realise a script editor is probably needed. Not to change Shyamalan's vision, but just to reign it in. Fortunately though, these are easily overlooked when compared to the good things about Lady In The Water.

Firstly the score by James Newton Howard. Howard has scored all of Shyamalan's films thus far and has also provided the sounds to blockbusters such as King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005), I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007) and The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008), on which he collaborated with Hans Zimmer. His work has always been good, but never exceptional - normally a functional, rousing but unmemorable piece of music to enhance the effect of an action or suspense sequence. But here Shyamalan employs him differently. Here Howard has seemingly been given free reign to create the tone of the whole film and his haunting, magical track 'Prologue' plays under most of the major scenes: The piano section that starts at 1:31 into the track is among the most beautiful, stirring and emotive scores that have ever been put to film and it lends more power than anything Shyamalan attempts in his direction. It's a frankly stunning piece of work which I would feel comfortable calling genuis. It's a track that actually feels like the sound of something magical. It actually inspires the imagination.

Of course, while the soundtrack creates the atmosphere and tone of the film, it would be inconsequential if there was nothing to care about in it. Giamatti provides a perfectly fine performance (when does he not?) but the real star here is Bryce Dallas Howard as Story. It's a shockingly overlooked performance. The beautiful young actress has easily escaped her fathers shadow (Ron Howard, director of Apollo 13, 1995 and The Da Vinci Code, 2006) and formed a captivating fairytale character. She brings an honesty and a quietness to Story, whose eyes are the gateway to a soft, humble soul. Everything from her long red hair to her delicate posture is perfect. It's a mystical, ethereal performance that's totally, totally believable despite its obvious fantasy. Howard pronounces her lines in a way that makes us think about the origins of the character when Shyamalan has provided so little. It's such a layered, deeply intimate portrayal you'd almost think she was from another world. The fact that this performance has now drifted by unnoticed is a crime. Because it's one of the best of last decade and has an enrapturing quality that is very, very special.

But there is something to be said for Shyamalan himself, and that's his sense of space. Lady In The Water is all set within the confines of the apartment complex but it never feels claustrophobic or restricted. You never long for a change of scenery. In fact it was only after the film had ended that I noticed at all. Shyamalan creates the mystery within four magical walls - overhead shots of the pool, long corridors, individual rooms, the surrounding woods. He's crafted a single location for all the conventions of a horror or fantasy movie to take place. It goes to show that the widened gaze of something like Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001) or Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001) isn't always necessary. Beautiful, impressive landscapes they may be, but they're no more engaging than the world of Lady In The Water. It's not the misty shots of castle-filled landscapes or long corridors of talking paintings and dwarves that create fantastical cinema, but tone and feeling. The story, score, cinematography and performance by Howard are the elements that compliment Shyamalan's enclosed setting. His direction may be nothing special (in fact a single location probably demands more innovation - the opportunity for complex tracking and panning shots is sorely missed) but the sense of space is extraordinary and it makes for his best cinema. Indeed, the only other Shyamalan film I can tolerate is Signs, and that's largely set within the protagonists house and surrounding field.

And then there's the ending, the make or break moment of any Shyamalan story. In this case the power of the finale doesn't rely on a twist but rests entirely upon the viewer. If you've allowed the magic of the film to wash over you then it will be a thing of pure beauty. If the critical nitpicking and one-bicep tenant have proved bothersome, it will be the final straw. For me it belongs in the former category. Its full of inconsistencies and the arrival of the Tarturic is a little clunky but its also staggeringly powerful. Stood in the rain Cleveland embraces Story and whispers "thank you for saving my life". The Great Eatlon swoops down and takes Story away into the sky, soaring over the dark clouds and city below. A shot from the pool, looking up hazily at Cleveland slowly fades out and gives way to a strangely moving cover of Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A Changin'. We may have got there by way of a cereal box, but it doesn't matter. Because Lady In The Water is a complete vision. It's a story of magic, belief, heart and soul. And it has problems. But who cares? I'll defend Lady In The Water forever, even though Shyamalan has let me down time and time again. Do yourself a favor. Give it another chance...
Giamatti as Cleveland and Howard as Story

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