Review: Lady in the Water

This movie will have a place in my heart and an impact on my soul forever and ever.

I tend to forget about “Lady in the Water,” shoved in the back of my bookshelf collecting dust. I tell myself that I need to watch something light and fluffy, and choose something else. But about once a year something prompts me to pull out this DVD and share with a friend. This happened again last night.

It becomes more powerful and beautiful with each viewing.

Although it has a relatively simple style and presentation, the very starkness of the telling sets up the story exquisitely.

Artistically, the film is amazing. The music is perfect; I barely noticed the first few times because it fits so well into the story, but it is gorgeous in its own right as well. The acting is – for the most part – well done: Bryce Dallas Howard is ethereal, and Paul Giamatti stole my heart. Every shot is composed with purpose as part of the whole tale. Camera angles bring out a dull but gritty sense of reality.

This realism is particularly poignant because the cast of characters are at such extremes of reality that would be caricatures in any other treatment. But here they have a steady pulse and presence; not necessarily jumping out at the viewer, but remaining part of the overarching experience of humanity.  Within one apartment complex there is the man who exercise only one side of his body, the silent bookish observer, the woman who takes in animals and attracts butterflies, the group of long-haired smokers who occasionally discuss serious things, and the spectacled film critic who understands stories.

The last one has a delightful place and commentary within and on this movie as a Story.

And finally, the Water Nymph (or “Narf”) named Story. And the weary, plodding apartment caretaker.

It is a story about Stories. The nature, purpose, and hope of stories. So it is a story about Hope. And it manages to convincingly, beautifully, soul-shakingly affirm that every human being has a Purpose.

Even the man who worked out one side of his body until there is a four-inch difference between the size of his biceps. He has a reason and place in Life.

The man who was hurt so horribly that he tried to give up hope, finds that he is still “so full of Hope that he awakens life in those around him”.

One of my favorite moments is when the sad bookish man asks our protagonist “Do you believe that man is worthy of being saved?” And our protagonist answers quietly and firmly, “Yes”.

This is not a “do we deserve to have Our Lord die on the Cross for our souls” question. It is a question of how men treat one another. In this society, the context that we have created for ourselves, does humanity have the right continue existing, continue hoping?

The director M. Night Shyamalan said that this movie is his “Bedtime Story for grown-ups.” It is a bedtime story, the fairy-tale of humanity that most grown-ups go to bed longing to believe. And it is wonderful. Half an hour in, I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. It was not a violent kind of weeping, but my eyes simply overflowed.

This movie  – and most of Shyamalan’s work – has been viciously attacked by film critics. They do not seem to know how to handle the beautiful artistry but heavy-handed moralistic tones of his work. And there are flaws in his work, but right now I am buoyed up on “Lady in the Water” and could not tell you what they are.

Honestly, the viewer must be able to actively submit to the paradigms of the tale and allow the quiet moments to be overwhelming. This can be an impediment to accessing the movie, but I think that it is also a virtue and part what makes his work so poignant and powerful.

I was left wondering why I had not watched this movie since last year. Despite crying, I did not find it a sad movie. It left me with a quiet, gentle peace that settled into my bones like a cup of hot tea. It made me look around for a Narf of my own.  And it gave me a momentary vision of how to view the world.

It gives me Wonder and Hope.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Lady in the Water

  1. Good review. I liked this movie when I saw it first. One of the people whose artistic taste I trust most also loves this movie, probably for similar reasons as you. If I’m to be honest, though, I have to admit that my appreciation of it, while still present, is tempered with a strong sense of disappointment and lost opportunities. I like what Shyamalan is trying to do, and I enjoy the skill with which he builds tension through small, haunting details. The music by James Newton Howard is, as usual for him, magical and thrilling. Paul Giamatti is excellent as the lead, Bryce Dallas Howard is beautiful and talented (though, ironically for having a lead role in this movie, rather underused, I think), and the guy who plays the critic is wry and easily more intelligent than any of the other characters.

    …And yet, the more I see The Lady in the Water, the more its flaws seem to devour its merits. The writing, I think, is pretty bad most of the time. Dialogue often feels very out of place, and usually only the inspired delivery by Giamatti can stop me from wincing. The plot barely hangs together, and wasn’t able to maintain the suspension of disbelief that Signs earned from me. The connections that lead to each revelation just feel utterly arbitrary, meaningless. I also am not too impressed by the supporting cast of characters — they still seem like a strange collection of shallow cliches ill-used. Beyond the three performances I mentioned above, I wasn’t charmed.

    I wanted so badly to take this movie seriously, for it to really succeed at saying something about fairy stories and their importance. And I really tried — I submitted to the quiet moments, I exulted in the music, I rooted for Giamatti. In the end, though, the movie didn’t succeed for me. I’m really glad it did for you and for my friend, and I still hope Shyamalan can get his act together and put his considerable talents to stories like this again; just perhaps with better thought-out scripts.

    Also, as a lover of beautiful-sounding names, both real and fantastical, I’m not sure I can forgive Shyamalan for calling Bryce Dallas Howard a Narf. Did he never watch Pinky & the Brain?

  2. What is “Pinky and the Brain”? They have Narfs? I’ll admit that the name is much less than beautiful. It reminds me of barf.

    This was actually the first Shyamalan film I ever watched, and I think some of the glamor and new-ness has stayed with it ever since. (Although I love The Village as well, despite all flaws.)

    I know what you mean about the script and acting; Shyamalan himself as actor slightly annoyed me, and I found myself rephrasing certain sentences with better word choices in my head.

    As for the plot . . . mmmm. I see your view, but I found that the point was partly *not* having so tight a plot. The objections raised by the characters were that this was real life, and who could know how plots unfold in real life?

    It does work for me, but I could not tell you what exactly it is that makes me see so much in it. It is whimsical, simple, sweet and beautiful. It is the overall atmosphere rather than the details that stay with me.

    Have you seen “The Happening”? That is another of his that I really liked at first viewing, and need to rewatch. I think that one is marvelously underrated.

    • *gasp* You mean…you don’t know…??? One of the most brilliant cartoons from Kids’ WB! heyday in the ’90s! Evil genius lab mouse Brain plots to take over the world with the aid of his loopily optimistic friend Pinky, whose catchphrase is, you guessed it, “Narf!” Here’s a songful clip to explain. ‘-)

    • And no, I haven’t seen The Happening yet. The premise didn’t really interest me, and I admit that the trashing it took turned me off even more. Having the twist spoiled for me also doesn’t help, but I’ll be fair and say I can’t judge it until I have seen it.

      Signs was my first Shyamalan, and I guess it has retained some of that glamour that Lady in the Water has for you. Definitely has its own flaws, but on the whole I think it works really well. I also like his Unbreakable (maybe his best movie — even Quentin Tarantino loves it). But to be honest, I like The Village far less. It had a good first part, but the characters ended up going nowhere and I felt totally cheated by the end — it actually left me angry. I don’t like being promised a haunting fantasy but given a poorly-reasoned experiment in utopian psychology! Gahh! Oh well. I’d actually be very interested in knowing what you like in it, if you ever review it in-depth as you’ve done with Lady. Did the ending let you down as well?

      • Well, maybe I just need to rewatch “The Happening” to get it out of my system, but it seemed to me like Flannery-O’Conor-meets-JPII’s-Theology-of-the-Body. It was abou the actions that make up love and loving a person. I do not think it was an eco-centric film at all! It concentrated on the interactions of humanity, and how people react and love in horrific circumstances.

        The Village . . . eh, I don’t want to review it. I know that it is awfully flawed, but I enjoy of the gorgeous cinamatography and sweet love story. It is simply eye-candy for me. 😉

  3. Pingback: On Posturing « Egotist's Club

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