Dir/sc: M. NightShyamalan. US 2004. 107 mins

Ostensibly setin the late 19th Century (though the precise period is not specified until latein the final reel), The Village is anarch and eccentric affair. M. Night Shyamalan's craftsmanship and originalityare not in doubt, but his attempts to combine Blair Witch-like horror with ScarletLetter-style costume drama yield some deeply silly moments. Theperformances and any attempts at psychological complexity are undermined by thestilted, formal dialogue (which often sounds like pastiche NathanielHawthorne.) Though Shyamalan uses conventional fright tactics effectivelyenough (flickering lights, portentous music, jolting cuts etc.), the film isneither as scary nor as unsettling as might have been expected.

It is unlikely thatThe Village will single-handedlyredeem what has so far been a wretched year for Disney or come anywhere nearmatching the staggering $673m worldwide gross of his third (and still mostsuccessful) feature, The Sixth Sense.However, Shyamalan's work has consistently found an international as well as adomestic audience. The film (out in the US on July 30 and in the UK on Aug 20)ought to open reasonably strongly on the basis of its director's previousreputation alone. The question is whether it will stay in theatres long enoughto make a reasonable return on its hefty production and marketing budget.

As the storybegins, the villagers (who live completely cut off from the outside world) arealarmed that their pact with the unseen creatures in the woods may be breakingdown. The creatures never attack without reason. The elders insist that thevillagers stay out of the woods. The intrepid young Lucius (Phoenix),determined to confront the unknown, defies their advice.

It quickly becomesapparent that the unseen creatures are really just a symptom of the tensionsthat are simmering beneath the surface in this seemingly idyllic community.Matters are brought to a head when Lucius becomes engaged to Ivy (Bryce DallasHoward), a beautiful and precocious young blind woman. The village fool (AdrienBrody) is so jealous that he stabs and nearly kills Lucius. Without medicalsupplies, Lucius will die. Ivy therefore resolves to venture through the deep,dark woods to secure these supplies.

There is a strongallegorical undertow to the narrative. As in Lars Von Trier's minimalist Dogville (to which The Village bears a more than passing resemblance), the communitysometimes seems to stand for US society in microcosm. The unseen creatures helpcrystallise the intense fear that the villagers have of anybody or anythingthat is beyond their own realm of experience.

This is also acautionary tale about the souring of a Utopian dream. There are frequentreferences to the chaos, violence and disorder in the town beyond the woods.The elders believe they can keep the demons at bay by pursuing a doctrine ofextreme isolationism, but the paradox is they need to use lies and intimidationto preserve the illusion of innocence.

Howard (who hasjust finished working with Von Trier on the Dogvillesequel, Maderlay) brings spirit andpassion to her role as the blind woman. The problem is that in her pretty dressand with her crook to support her, she looks disconcertingly like LittleBo-Peep in search of her sheep. Her epic journey across the woods has a (surelyunintended) comic dimension which evokes memories of the blind man leavingchaos in his wake in W.C. Fields' It's AGift. Neil Jordan's Company Of Wolveswas far more effective in using fairy tale characters and motifs to make anadult horror picture.

Shyamalan hasassembled a formidable cast, but hidden behind beards, frock coats and bonnets,and lumbered with some very creaky dialogue, even such seasoned performers asWilliam Hurt and Sigourney Weaver fail to bring much depth to their roles.

At least, The Village looks a treat. ThePennsylvania landscapes are gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins in rich, autumnalcolours, and the production design is meticulously detailed. Meanwhile,Shyamalan's trademark surprise ending, though tricksy in the extreme, adds alevel of pathos and complexity to the storytelling which the rest of the filmstruggles to match.

Prod: Scott Rudin,Sam Mercer
Prod Cos: Blinding EdgePictures, Scott Rudin Productions for Touchstone Pictures
US dist: Buena Vista
Cine: Roger Deakins
Prod Des: Tom Foden
Main Cast: JoaquinPhoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver