Depending on your ability to suspend disbelief, M Night Shyamalan’s Lady In The Water will either be a magical, modern myth or a vanity project too far from the Sixth Sense man. Like Signs, this is a film that raises the notion of faith; which it then combines with the notions of fate and fairytale into a highly unfashionable mainstream mix. Accordingly, many critics have sharpened their pens on Lady... simply because they can.
However, these are the sort of critics who would be bending over backwards to lick M Night’s nether regions if Lady... was a Korean art house movie. And they’re also the sort of critics satirised so sharply by the one unsympathetic character here, an obnoxious film reviewer. As stuttering caretaker Cleveland Heep (Giamatti) shows his new tenant around The Cove, the apartment block where the story unfolds, both the reviewer and the audience are introduced to the other eccentric inhabitants. It’s an obvious but efficient device and Shyamalan kickstarts the story “proper” soon after. Heep discovers Story (Howard), a nymph-like creature, in the pool. Like the rest of her kind, she has a message for the human race, if only we will listen. By delivering the message, she will achieve her salvation and return to her world. In order to do this, she needs the help of other figures from the legend — The Guardian, The Writer, etc. Heep’s role is to decipher these titles and work out which tenant they apply to, though time is limited and another figure from the legend — a vicious wolf-like creature called a Scrunt — is there to prevent Story from fulfilling her duty.
This blurring of legend and real life is a difficult trick, but Shyamalan carries it off with some aplomb. Yes, the revelation of the legend feels shoehorned in to the film’s limited running time, which makes it all a little risible. But, thanks to Shyamalan’s direction and the quality of the acting, the ever-brilliant Giamatti in particular, it’s the sort of necessary evil that’s easy to forgive. Some will assassinate Lady In The Water, because it’s not conventional and requires a leap of faith not associated with mainstream Hollywood. Keep an open mind though and, assuming you haven’t lost all hope, you’ve got a strange uplifting experience awaiting you.