It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Mr. Tom Crick is going mad. That is fairly obvious to the students in his high school history class, but they are not particularly alarmed by his madness, because it takes an entertaining form: Instead of boring them with details of the French Revolution, he tells them of the horrors of his adolescence, which was even worse than theirs.
It is 1972. Crick teaches in Pittsburgh. He was raised in the fenlands of England, which stretch between Cambridge and the sea from which they were reclaimed. They are low, wet flatlands, described as providing nowhere to hide from the eye of God. In that dreary landscape he grew up between the wars during a series of tragedies each more gloomy than the last.
His story is told in "Waterland," based on a 1983 novel by Graham Swift that is set entirely in England (the transfer to Pittsburgh is a mystery, but not a serious distraction). Crick is played in the film by Jeremy Irons as a man whose brow is permanently creased with pain, and whose wife (Sinead Cusack) has gone mad in her own way, and stolen a baby from in front of a convenience store.
She cannot have children of her own, as the result of a crude and barbarous abortion performed on the fens in the cottage of an old crone. We learn these details gradually, as Crick shares them with his class and the film flashes back to show them - sometimes, oddly, with the whole class going along, on a field trip through time. For Tom and Mary Crick, life has been a steady descent from careless teenage happiness to a grim, barren adulthood.