The critics have largely savaged M. Night Shyamalan's new film, The Lady in the Water. Many seem to be so annoyed by the film's depiction of a snotty newspaper movie and book critic as to be constitutionally unable to appreciate it at all. If so, they are being astoundingly petty. The film has much to recommend it.
Yes, it's a bit slow at times, and the plot often seems something of a shaggy dog story. However, Lady in the Water also contains some very moving scenes depicting characters' great longing for love and meaning. That is something Shyamalan has always been very good at providing, and it characterizes his films at least as strongly as the plot twists, imaginative ideas, and suspense scenes for which he is better known. That is a very good thing and not at all common among current-day filmmakers. In this way Shyamalan reminds one more of Hollywood Golden Era directors Sam Wood and Frank Borzage than of anyone today.
As you probably know, the film tells the story of a water nymph who appears in a Philadelphia-area apartment complex and sets in motion a series of events from an ancient Korean bedtime story which Shyamalan has invented for the film. The future of the world hangs in the balance, and multitudes of people's lives will be changed greatly for the better if the characters succeed, and much for the worse if they fail. There are malevolent creatures out to stop the nymph from her appointed good works, and some lawkeeper critters who are apparently asleep at the switch through most of the story.
The film includes numerous allusions to spiritual concepts, and the story as a whole— with its premise that humanity is in the midst of a great battle among beings we cannot ordinarily see—suggests an interesting consideration of the Judeo-Christian idea of spiritual warfare. Yet it's not at all heavy-handed; Shyamalan includes enough quirky humor to keep the proceedings on an even keel, and his ability to elicit convincing performances from his cast remains strong.
Lady in the Water depicts a world in which human beings are buffeted about by forces we cannot usually see, but in which our choices are meaningful and intensely important and every person's life has a purpose and great meaning. The inclusion of a snotty film and book critic is therefore not a snide, angry slap at the writer-director's critics—or at least not only that. It is a critique of people who claim life has no deeper meaning and that everything is determined by events outside human control.
Although far from perfect, Lady in the Water does successfully convey that meaning, and that is an accomplishment indeed.
From Karnick on Culture.