(director: Kathryn Bigelow; screenwriters: from the novel by Anita Shreve/Alice Arlen/Christopher Kyle; cinematographer: Adrian Biddle; editor: Howard E. Smith; music: David Hirschfelder; cast: Catherine McCormack (Jean Janes), Sarah Polley (Maren Hontvedt), Sean Penn (Thomas Janes), Josh Lucas (Rich Janes), Katrin Cartlidge (Karen Christenson), Ciarán Hinds (Louis Wagner), Elizabeth Hurley (Adaline Gunn), Ulrich Thomsen (John Hontvedt), Vinessa Shaw (Anethe Christenson), Anders W. Berthelsen (Evan Christenson); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: R; producers: A. Kitman Ho/ Joni Sigurjon Sighvatsson/Janet Yang; Manifest Film Co./Lions Gate; 2000-UK/USA)

“It doesn’t surprise me that this film sat for two years in storage before released, as the final version appeared clunky.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Kathryn Bigelow’s (“K-19: The Widowmaker“) dark mystery thriller The Weight of Water is adapted from Anita Shreve’s novel that fictionalizes a true story and like the recent film Possession tells two melodramatic stories that go back in time. The true story goes back to the night of March 5, 1873, when two Norwegian immigrant women were found butchered to death on Smuttynose Island, 10 miles off the New Hampshire coast, while a third was found hiding near her cottage by the sea. The former boarder in the family cottage, Louis Wagner (Ciarán Hinds), was hanged for the crime. The present day story concerns an English photographer, Jean (Catherine McCormack), who comes by yacht to the windy Isle of Shoals on what she calls a working vacation in the company of her husband, Pulitzer-winning poet Thomas Janes (Sean Penn), his brother Rich (Josh Lucas), and the brother’s current English girlfriend Adaline Gunn (Elizabeth Hurley).

Jean is slated to do a magazine article and a photo shoot spread on the location where the gruesome murders took place a century and some odd years earlier and can’t resist playing detective, as she fantasizes about what happened. She puts the events leading up to the murders and the hanging together from the court records she cribbed and letters she obtained from the family records, and filters them through her imagination. The film repeatedly switches back and forth between the two time periods and relates each story, as it also annoys further with some confusing flashbacks.

The 19th century story was told in a straightforward manner and was lucid even if it was dreary, but it at least solves the crime for those who like to see their mystery stories resolved. The present day story was murky and pretentious, and opted to be loaded down with all kinds of sexual machinations among those on the yacht. It also tried too hard to be visually symbolic by showing lots of contrasting sea shots of the calm waters or menacing waves. Also, it shamelessly lost its grim atmospheric mood by constantly filming the hot Elizabeth Hurley in a bikini, or when peeling off her top to sunbathe, or when seducing Sean Penn, or when in plain sight of the others sucking on ice cubes in imitation of an act of fellatio.This left Catherine wondering what was going on between her hubby and the transparent sexpot, who happens also to know all of her husband’s verses by heart. All Thomas seems to do is drink a lot, allow himself to be easily seduced and gab a lot about arty stuff. He’s more convincing as a twit than as a man of letters.

The modern story about infidelity among the New England society trend-setters was told in sharp contrast in mood to the stark story about the God-fearing, sexually repressed, hard-working, tight-lipped and long-suffering immigrants on a secluded island, who share tight-quarters in a cottage and spend a lonely life with the men fishing and the women taking care of the household chores. For the Nordics, madness seems like a very real possibility as something acted out in a violent manner. While for the New Englanders, their psychological disturbances can be talked to death. That’s why it wasn’t convincing to try and tag the plot from the past onto the moderns, there’s too much of a disconnect.

The film opens to the trial of the accused man. The sole survivor of the bludgeoning murders, Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley), points out that Louis Wagner was the one who strangled her older sister Karen Christenson (the late Katrin Cartlidge) and took an axe to kill her sister-in-law Anethe Christenson (Vinessa Shaw). In her head, Maren plays back how her uncommunicative, stern and unromantic fisherman husband John (Ulrich Thomsen) ended up coming here with her from the old country, and how miserable and lonely she was in an unhappy marriage but saved herself by hard work and leaving no time for tears. Later the lonely Prussian boarder Louis, also a fisherman, is brought into their small cottage by her husband. Maren’s cold-fish sister Karin arrives soon after and also lives in the cramped cottage. Later her amiable brother Evan (Anders W. Berthelsen) arrives with his bubbly and sensuous wife Anethe, and it is revealed that brother and sister were once lovers. That is something she has not gotten over, but he’s happily married and wants no part of that again. Louis remains until some time later when he’s forced to leave after he unsuccessfully tries to make a pass at Anethe.

The film eventually sinks from the questionable weight it puts on both stories and from how unaffecting the parallel mystery tales are played out. Lust and violence impinge on the sea landscape, as the sea becomes a forced metaphor speaking for the inarticulate characters who seemed like either mutes or terribly irritating bores whenever they opened up their pie holes to speak. Under Ms. Bigelow’s cursory direction and the flat performances by the ensemble cast, so many scenes are forgettable. It doesn’t surprise me that this film sat for two years in storage before released, as the final version appeared clunky. It never got around in the fictionalized modern story to say what was so tantalizing in dredging up the past, as a point of comparison. The dark desires of its women protagonists from the past and the present do not seem to be on such an equal footing for that comparison to work.

The Weight of Water Poster

REVIEWED ON 3/22/2003 GRADE: C –