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Adrift amid marriage, murder

'Weight of Water' struggles to stay afloat with dueling themes, poorly cast characters.

November 01, 2002|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

Director Kathryn Bigelow has always seemed an uneasy fit with the American movie industry. Part of this discomfort is the chilliness of her touch, the almost aggressive lack of emotional heat we expect in our movies. Then there's the fact that the film business is not disposed to women directors who don't work for easy laughs. There is nothing frivolous or ingratiating about Bigelow's finest films or her most seductive characters, all of whom -- the cowboy vampires of "Near Dark," a guardian angel named Mace in "Strange Days" -- share with the director an unwavering purposefulness. Even when they're coaxing laughter from their nightmares, these are characters who take themselves very seriously.

Bigelow's last film, the submarine thriller "K-19: The Widowmaker," released in July, is the second of two recent features she's directed about characters confined to close quarters while aboard a ship, which could be a metaphor but is likely just chance. The earlier feature, a drama based on the Anita Shreve novel "The Weight of Water," is only now receiving a U.S. release, more than two years after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Awkwardly framed by two separate narrative strands, the film combines a 19th century true-crime mystery with the unraveling of a contemporary marriage, an uncharacteristic choice of material for a genre director who favors bold strokes and has a talent for setting bodies in violent motion.

Photographer Jean Janes (Catherine McCormack), her Pulitzer Prize-winning poet husband (Sean Penn), her brother-in-law (Josh Lucas) and his new girlfriend (Elizabeth Hurley) sail to the Isles of Shoals off the Maine coast to research a century-old murder. In 1873, a Norwegian immigrant, Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley), had been the sole witness to the frenzied slaying of her older sister (the late Katrin Cartlidge) and sister-in-law (Vinessa Shaw). Joylessly married to a fisherman (Ulrich Thomsen) who applies the same grim determination to his trade as he does to fulfilling his conjugal duties, Maren has endured years of near-solitude when her sister arrives from Norway. Sometime later, the household swells to include a Prussian boarder (Ciaran Hinds), Maren's brother (Anders W. Berthelsen) and his new bride.

Shreve embroiders the historical record with fabricated evidence in the novel, restlessly moving between the past and the present until they blur together.

Although the Prussian was hanged for the crime, Shreve is less concerned with who swung the ax than why. For her, the great mystery of the murders is the island's otherworldly women, in particular Maren, a creature whose psychological opacity makes her the sort of blank slate upon which authors are so fond of scribbling their ideas. For her part, Bigelow has said she was drawn to the book because her mother comes from Norwegian stock, but a more persuasive explanation may have been the appeal of exploring the darker side of female desire, a shadowy area only glanced on in her previous films.

In her telling of this complicated story, Bigelow handles the flashback sequences adroitly, even though she never manages to surmount the intrinsic dreariness of their sub-Bergman despair. Yet if the past quivers to tepid life, there's simply no saving the present-day drama, which, despite the attractive presence of McCormack and Lucas, is overwhelmed by Penn and Hurley's dueling histrionics.

Scowling his way forward and aft, Penn's swaggering macho genius is as dated as his Elvis pompadour and only slightly less silly than Hurley's strenuous vamping, which finds her alternately melting ice cubes over her overheated body and lustily slurping on lobster legs.

If Penn and Hurley are too loud for the story's subtleties, it's because Bigelow's penchant for action over introspection doesn't make sense for a drama hinged on such unreliable, emotionally repressed narrators. Part of the problem is that Alice Arlen and Christopher Kyle's screenplay is so faithful to Shreve's novel that it fails to transcend the book's obscure point of view and the falsity of its parallel narrative.

"The Weight of Water" depends on a seamless integration of Jean and Maren's stories for the larger narrative to work -- but even with Bigelow's fluid editing, the strands never convincingly plait together. No matter how deep her hurt, Jean and her insecurities make for an impoverished counterpoint to the tragedy of a woman imprisoned by history as well as by madness, an imbalance underscored with each cut from all the dank Nordic repression to the gaseous New England whining.

Bigelow has always had a difficult time keeping a handle on her characters' passions, especially when it comes to the sort of quieter emotions that fall with tears rather than with blood. Her characters often seem designed to express themselves through their fists, and that may be one reason why she's at her most comfortable in action-oriented genres. (They're also easier to get made.)

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