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LADY IN THE WATER (article first published : 2006-08-22)

Lady in the Water, the latest film from talented, Indian-born writer-director M Night Shyamalan, noted for his broody style and the unpredictability of his plots, is one that washes in on the crest of controversy.

Reports are that after reading a sixth draft of Shyamalan's quirky adult fairytale, a variation of a flamboyant bedtime story he dreamed up for his kids, Disney executives, who had produced all his earlier films, shook their heads at the new project, saying they simply did not "get it".

A disgruntled Shyamalan then scuttled off to Warner Bros, which gave the maker of The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Village the nod.

He has fashioned a film which, if intriguing and artfully and imaginatively composed, has met with a very mixed critical reception and has left a good few cinemagoers - certainly many heard muttering while leaving a Durban screening - scratching their heads in beffudlement.

Lady in the Water stars Bryce Dallas Howard, also seen in The Village, in the title role of a pale frightened ethereal woman called Story who walks, silent and naked, into the home of stuttering Cleveland Heep (Sideways stars Paul Giamatti), a somewhat sad superintendent an apartment block called The Cove.

Story, we learn, is a Narf, or water nymph of sorts, who has come from a world beneath The Cove swimming pool - and she is desperate for Cleveland's help to return her to her realm.

For this to happen, Story has to escape the jaws of a red-eyed creature called a Scrunch and, to find the wings of a friendly eagle that will fly her home requires heaps of help - which has Cleveland calling on assistance from virtually everyone at The Cove.

Residents include a taciturn hermit type, a woman who loves butterflies, a group of slackers, a man with five daughters, a squabbling Oriental couple, a writer set for meaning in life, an earnest little boy, a crossword puzzle fundi, a film critic - and a guy who works out only one side of his body, played by Six Feet Under's Freddy Rodriguez.

Even accepted for the skewed fairytale it is, Lady in the Water gets many points deducted from this reviewer for being, well, just too convoluted and pretentious, too longwinded - and presenting way too many characters, most of whom, unfathomably, never once question the bizarre circumstances with which they become involved.

Shyamalan also becomes more than a little indulgent, casting himself in the second male lead, as the writer who is told he will one day get recognition way beyond his imagination. Read into that what you will.

His preoccupation with a sour know-it-all film critic (Bob Balaban), as a villain of the piece, whose disbelief in fantasy fare proves his downfall, also seems a little much - and a smug retort to the whipping some critics gave to his The Village.

Ardent fans of Shyamalan will want to check this one out, but the film, while offering good performances and brief moments of magic, remains a sad disappointment. Rating 5/10 Billy Suter




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