There are a number of surface similarities between the films Possession (which was released in the summer of 2002) and The Weight of Water. Both were adapted from well-reviewed novels; the former by British writer A.S. Byatt, the latter by Massachusetts resident Anita Shreve. Each film tells two stories, a contemporary one dealing with relationships and love, and an historical one that is at heart a mystery. Possession was pure fiction, while The Weight of Water had some basis in fact. Each film also marked something of a departure for its director. Both films are more successful in capturing the period material, but each has its own merits.
The Weight of Water played the festival circuit throughout 2000 (where it premiered at Toronto) and 2001 and has inexplicably been sitting on the shelf. Unless it is an independent film searching for distribution, that generally isn't a good sign and indicates that the film may be something of a disappointment. In the case of The Weight of Water, that isn't entirely the case. Don't misunderstand, the movie has its flaws, but it also has some intriguing elements as well.
In March of 1873 on the isolated Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine, two female Norwegian immigrants were murdered and a third was found huddled in a cave. The survivor named a German man, Louis Wagner, as the attacker and he was tried, convicted and hanged for the crime. Since that time, there has been much controversy over the verdict, with some claiming Wagner was framed. In her novel, Shreve posited a rather plausible alternative that utilized dark family secrets.
Shreve also brilliantly used a troubled contemporary relationship to reflect and refract the drama of the past. In adapting the book for the screen, Alice Arlen and Christopher Kyle were more or less faithful to the spirit of the book. Director Kathryn Bigelow, better known for her genre-bending work Near Dark, Strange Days, and Blue Steel, handles the material with skill, gracefully moving between the period. Yet, the final on screen product doesn't quite add up.
The scenes set in the 19th Century vibrate with a dramatic frisson that is missing in the more languid contemporary ones. Some of the fault has to be laid on the screenwriters who weren't able completely to make the quartet of characters fully-rounded people. The drive of the story comes from Jean (Catherine McCormack), a photojournalist on assignment to investigate the Smuttynose Island murders. She and her husband, Thomas (Sean Penn), an award-winning poet, travel to New England and board a sailboat owned by Thomas' brother Rich (Josh Lucas). Also along for the ride is Rich's new girlfriend, the overtly sexual Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley), who may or may not be more interested in Thomas. As Jean investigates the 19th-century crime, she also has to deal with her growing fear that her marriage is collapsing, her jealousy of Adaline, and her own complicated feelings for Rich. That alone could make for a taut drama, but much is left undefined and implied. Some may appreciate the nebulous quality, but I would have preferred something a little more concrete.
The "flashback" sequences that dramatize the events leading up to the murder and its aftermath (including the trial) are handled with more brio. Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley), the survivor of the massacre, testifies that Wagner (Ciaran Hinds), a former border at the Hontvedt home, was the man who killed her sister Karen (the late Katrin Cartlidge) and her sister-in-law Anethe (Vinessa Shaw) while her brother Evan (Anders W. Berthelsen) and husband John (Ulrich Thomsen) stoically watch. Maren's story is then played out; her unhappiness at the barrenness of the islands and the drudgery of her life as a fisherman's wife. She also chafes under the superior attitude of her sister Karen and becomes jealous of her sister-in-law when the latter announces that she is pregnant.
The performances in these scenes are all terrific. While Thomsen (from Celebration) is unrecognizable under a beard, and Berthelsen (the star of Mifune) have less to do, they lend an authenticity to their roles as Nordic immigrants. Hinds finds the right ambiguity for the role of Wagner, leaving the audience to question his guilt. The women, though, fare better; Shaw does a fine turn as the somewhat spoiled new bride, while Cartlidge does an admirable job of essaying the judgmental sibling. Polley is absolutely mesmerizing as the strong-willed Maren, a feisty woman forced to face the hardships of an unfamiliar place.
The present-day roles are less defined and the actors sometimes reduced to playing types. Hurley was clearly cast for her beauty and has little to do except look stunning in and out of a bikini. Penn and McCormack both try to make something of their sketchy roles. Their decided lack of chemistry actually assists in making believable the fact that they are portraying a couple struggling in their marriage. Lucas manages to display some of the same 'aw, shucks' charisma that was displayed better in Sweet Home Alabama..
The technical credits, including Adrian Biddle's cinematography, Karl Juliusson's production design, Howard Smith's editing and David Hirschfelder's score, all dovetail nicely and provide the appropriate tone.
Rating: B- MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexuality/brief nudity, and language Running time: 113 mins.