WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Unhappy mother Dahlia, going through a messy divorce, takes her daughter Cecilia to live in a run-down apartment block on Roosevelt Island. Although the nearby school is good, the apartment itself is a nightmare, leaking filthy water from above into the flat and causing Dahlia health problems, whilst Ceci makes friends with a girl called Natasha who nobody else thinks exists. Dahlia must fight to keep hold of her daughter against forces of all kinds who would see them separated.
As there are so many films you can watch at any given time, you have to choose carefully, weighing up the pros and cons before deciding whether to give any particular movie a go. For example, I don’t as a rule have much time for horror films, especially ones with lots of blood, guts and cruelty. On the other hand, I am more than averagely keen to watch anything with Jennifer Connelly in it, her performances usually helping to offset whatever deficiencies a film might have. In this light I decided to give Dark Water a go, and while it is completely bloodless as a horror film (it would more accurately be described as a ghost story), it is also one where Ms Connelly’s role could have been played by almost anyone, without making the film one iota better or worse.
Based on a Japanese film (and thus treading in the footsteps of The Ring, The Grudge and so on), Dark Water finds Jennifer as Dahlia Williams, on the brink of a messy divorce from her husband Dougray Scott and burdened with memories of her alcoholic mother’s disregard thirty years before. These memories make her ever fiercer in her quest to retain custody of their daughter Cecilia ( ‘Ceci’, as she’s called, played by Ariel Gale) even though financial circumstances force them to live in a shabby apartment block in Roosevelt Island, away from Manhattan. Initial impressions of the flat are less than favourable, despite the game efforts of the agent (John C. Reilly), as a big, black damp patch on the ceiling complements the dingy meagreness of the rest of the flat; but this patch is fascinating to Ceci and she persuades Mom to rent the flat.
Soon, however, strange things start happening, as the patch becomes a leak and Dahlia’s investigations into the upstairs flat cause her to become ill, suffering from migraines and remembering the past; in the meantime, Ceci’s teachers worry about her new-found habit of talking to a girl called Natasha. Of course she’s imaginary: but why was there a backpack bearing Natasha’s name on the roof? And does the supervisor Mr Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) know more than he’s letting on? Dahlia cannot figure out what’s happening, so is grateful for the help of her lawyer, Jeff Platzer (Tim Roth); yet simply sorting out the leaky ceiling and custody matters is not enough to get the lives of both mother and daughter back on track as someone – or something – doesn’t want them to leave.
In a purely visual sense, Dark Water does a good job of creating an atmosphere, with a palette of greens, brown and blacks that almost rivals Se7en for unpleasantness. Filthy running water will never be as horrific as spurting blood, of course, but it’s quite an effective device and acts, together with the decaying flats, as an effective metaphor for the disintegration of Dahlia’s mental state. Where the film falls down is that it doesn’t build that atmosphere into something truly terrifying, choosing instead to play games, teasing the viewer about the role of Mr Veeck, about whether Dahlia is going mad or whether her husband is paying kids to mess around and send her mad: in short, whether the film is in fact concerned with natural or super-natural goings on.
That the film hedges its bets with a bit of each, chucking in the occasional horror jolt (nothing too scary) and the odd red herring along the way, is annoying, whilst the climax, apart from not being as scary as it should be, is horribly downbeat (without spoiling too much, my Western sensibilities want people to deserve their fate). No doubt it follows the Japanese original, which no doubt also had pretensions to Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now; but as an example of psychological horror made by Disney it’s not chilling, merely wet.
Presented with such a gloomy, soggy story, you can only hope that the acting will save the day; but the script is so by-the-numbers that parts could almost have been given out at random. Connelly and Ariel Gale are nice enough together, but Toni Collette, Jodie Foster, Demi Moore or a hundred others could have played her part perfectly well. Reilly’s lazy agent is passingly amusing, Postlethwaite’s randomly foreign janitor adequately suspicious, and Scott’s husband just about unpleasant enough in a tiny role; Tim Roth, though, is pretty poor as Platzer, working out of his car and pretending to have a family. If we are meant to feel any connection with him, or between him and Dahlia, he fails; but then again, he is hidden behind glasses and facial hair to the extent that not only can you not tell what he’s feeling, you can barely tell it’s Tim Roth (perhaps that was his plan).
As a ghost story that wallows in the misery of abandonment, Dark Water is okay, but given the crowded market for teen-friendly thrillers ‘okay’ really isn’t good enough. I’d love to say it had highs and lows, as then I’d be able to say it runs hot and cold, but the truth is it doesn’t. Despite the best efforts of the always-lovely and always-believable Jennifer, Dark Water is just a damp squib.