Home > Reviews > LADY IN THE WATER – James Newton Howard

LADY IN THE WATER – James Newton Howard

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The critics have not been kind to N. Night Shyamalan of late. Ever since he burst onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense and was immediately hailed as the new wunderkind in Hollywood, the Indian-American writer/director has come under increasing fire for his subsequent projects, many of which were criticised for tricking the audience and relying on ‘last minute twist’ gimmicks. His seventh film as director, Lady in the Water, has come in for the harshest criticism of all; Shyamalan has been accused of everything from narcissism to self-indulgence, having cast himself in a significant pivotal role, and freely admitting that the entire story was cooked up from a bedtime story he made up for his children. Needless to say, I personally think it’s his best film since The Sixth Sense.

Set in an apartment complex in suburban Philadelphia called The Cove, Lady in the Water stars Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep, the complex’s sad sack superintendent. When he rescues what he thinks is a young woman from the complex pool, Cleveland finds himself embroiled in a mysterious, timeless tale from ancient Chinese proverbs: the woman, whose name is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), is actually a Narf, and comes from a place called The Blue World. She has been entrusted with giving the one member of the human race the inspiration to change the world; and in order for that to happen, all she has to do is be seen by the chosen person – except, of course, she does not know who that person is. Once she has delivered the message, in order to get back home, she must summon a huge bird called the Great Eatlon, who will carry her back to the Blue World. However, a monstrous grass-backed beast called a Scrunt is intent on stopping her from returning home… so Cleveland and the assorted tenants of his apartment building (who include film critic Bob Balaban, crossword expert Jeffrey Wright, student Cindy Cheung, and frustrated writer Shyamalan) must to come together to help protect Story…

If the mythology of Lady in the Water makes no sense to you, don’t worry – it doesn’t make much sense at all. The point is that, like most fairy stories, you simply have to believe in its essence, its fantastical nature, and once you can do that you can believe wholly in the world and its rules. It helps immeasurably that actors of the calibre of Giamatti, Balaban and Wright are completely sincere throughout the production, and are ably assisted by a hugely creative behind-the-camera talent, especially cinematographer Chris Doyle, whose beautifully lit and shot pictures add volumes to the dream-like nature of the experience. In fact, Lady in the Water is really probably best described as a cinematic dream – as if someone woke up with the plot in their head, and decided to film it, inconsistencies and logical leaps and all.

James Newton Howard’s contribution is, as always, immense. Howard and Shyamalan have developed one of Hollywood’s most interesting composer-director relationships through projects such as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village. The latter always seems to bring out the best in the former, and Lady in the Water is no exception.

As one would expect for an aquatic fairytale such as this, Howard’s music has a definite sense of shimmery transparency, an ethereal quality, which is apparent both in the writing and in the orchestration. Howard uses soft strings, chimes, harps, celestes, fluttery woodwinds and distant choirs to evoke the Blue World, and counterbalances this with sometimes rather harsh writing for the more bass-heavy sections of the orchestra to represent the more solid, less intangible, human element.

The animated “Prologue” introduces the main themes – the hopeful, romantic major key theme for Story and The Blue World, the dangerous brass motif for the Scrunts – and sets the mood for the rest of the score. “The Party”, despite appearing as the second cue on the album, actually underscores the film’s finale as the tenants of The Cove try to outsmart the vicious Scrunt and prepare for the arrival of the Eatlon. Urgent, menacing string writing and incessant tick-tock percussion adds to the tension, while lonely-sounding brass writing adds a level of melancholy.

The addictive “Charades” is a recapitulation of sorts of the micro-writing of swirling, repeated string figures which so characterised his work on Signs, where cellos and violins and basses pass around the same small motif, only to find it being tracked and followed by the piano, marimbas, clarinets, flutes, and several other instruments as it develops. The scene it accompanies is one of discovery and revelation, and takes place in a bathroom of all places, so once again the watery orchestrations of the main theme keep it anchored firmly in Shyamalan’s fairytale world. This motif is developed further in another “discovery” sequence, “Cereal Boxes”.

The truly lovely “Ripples in the Pool” introduces the tender relationship theme for Cleveland and Story, performed mainly on a variety of woodwinds with a soft, emotional string and piano backing. It’s not really a love theme, as Cleveland and Story are not in love, but it definitely has a romantic sensibility. Action music, when it comes, tends to be dark and muted, as in the first half of “The Blue World”, or dramatically thrilling, as in the second half of “Walkie Talkie”, although the crescendo which climaxes the former cue is quite stunning in its intensity and ability to generate a sense of awe and wonder. The same can be said of the beautiful “Officer Jimbo”, which features some emotional woodwind writing and heavenly choral performances, and the enormous finale “The Great Eatlon”, where the orchestra rises to perform a glorious, triumphant refrain to herald the arrival of Story’s vessel home, complete with full choir, heroic brasses, and massive statements of the main themes.

Some of the woodwind writing is VERY occasionally reminiscent of the excellent score the Australian composer Bruce Smeaton wrote for the 1983 sci-fi drama Iceman, and some of the piano writing has a definite touch of James Horner, but the rest of it is pure Howard – albeit with the intricate Bernard Herrmann references which Howard has injected into all his Shyamalan efforts, and which the director seems to like.

Ignoring the four tawdry Bob Dylan covers tacked on the end of album (one of which, “Maggie’s Farm”, is performed on screen), Lady in the Water is a quite superb score, easily one of the best of the summer, one of the best from a Shyamalan film, and in the top ten of James Newton Howard’s career. The lightness of touch, the effortless beauty, the intricate inter-weaving of themes, and the overall magical, fantastical aspect will keep listeners enthralled for the duration.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (2:52)
  • The Party (6:40)
  • Charades (5:50)
  • Ripples in the Pool (1:49)
  • The Blue World (4:25)
  • Giving the Kii (1:49)
  • Walkie Talkie (2:08)
  • Cereal Boxes (2:33)
  • Officer Jimbo (3:31)
  • The Healing (4:03)
  • The Great Eatlon (4:41)
  • End Titles (1:43)
  • The Times They Are A-Changin (written by Bob Dylan, performed by A Whisper in the Noise) (5:59)
  • Every Grain of Sand (written by Bob Dylan, performed by Amanda Ghost) (4:15)
  • It Ain’t Me Babe (written by Bob Dylan, performed by Silvertide) (3:46)
  • Maggie’s Farm (written by Bob Dylan, performed by Silvertide) (3:36)

Running Time: 59 minutes 50 seconds

Decca B0007309-2 (2006)

Music composed James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian, Brad Dechter, Jon Kull and Patrick Russ. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphhy and Joel Iwataki. Edited by Thomas Drescher. Album produced by James Newton Howard.

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