Artistically speaking, "The Weight of Water," Kathryn Bigelow's first film in five years, is her richest, most ambitious and personal work to date; commercially, however, it may be her most problematic. This psychological thriller interweaves a contempo tale of a marriage breakdown with the story of a double murder in 1873.

Artistically speaking, “The Weight of Water,” Kathryn Bigelow’s first film in five years, is her richest, most ambitious and personal work to date; commercially, however, it may be her most problematic. Boasting a multilayered narrative, this psychological thriller interweaves a contempo tale of a marriage breakdown with the story of a double murder in 1873. The pic benefits from a superlative femme-centered cast, headed by Sarah Polley and Catherine McCormack, but its constantly shifting time frame, deliberate pacing and lack of dramatic momentum will severely curtail theatrical prospects. An entrepreneurial distributor should pick up this challenging art film, which is best suited to the specialized circuit.

Bigelow is an audaciously talented filmmaker determined to push the envelope for women directors. The good news is that after stumbling for a decade, in which she made only three films (“Blue Steel,” “Point Break” and “Strange Days”), Bigelow has given up on her attempt to belong to the Hollywood boys’ club by making viscerally exciting, ultra-violent actioners.

At the center of “Weight of Water” are five women, each struggling with sexual politics and personal identity. Loosely based on a true case, the story begins with a trial in which Louis Wagner (Ciaran Hinds) is accused of murdering two Norwegian immigrants with an ax. A third woman, Maren Hontvedt (Polley) claims to have witnessed the killings. Identified by Maren as the murderer, Wagner is convicted and sentenced to death.

Cut to a modern-day setting that introduces Jean (McCormack), a photographer who arrives on Smuttynose Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, to research the century-old crime. Jean is accompanied by her husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Thomas (Sean Penn); his handsome brother, Rich (Josh Lucas); and the latter’s sexy girlfriend, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley). The quartet set out on a boat trip that’s meant to combine business and pleasure. It soon becomes clear that the notion was naive, as Jean says in voiceover that periodically punctuates the narrative.

Immersing herself in the case to the point of obsession, Jean finds herself undergoing a precarious emotional journey that shakes the foundation of her marriage and life. Her suspicion that Thomas is having an affair with the alluring Adaline burgeons into jealousy and distrust, setting in motion a series of crises with horrific consequences.

Experimenting with the boundaries of narrative cinema, Bigelow presents a nonlinear tale that’s told in multiple time frames — and from different perspectives, based on voiceover narration of the two protags, the historical Maren and the contempo Jean. Cineastes will praise this bold structure, but mainstream viewers may feel distanced by the excessively fractured story.

The murder case, which continued to draw attention for decades, unfolds as a jigsaw puzzle, with Bigelow masterfully interweaving the various haunting elements, often through flashbacks within flashbacks. Assisted by Adrian Biddle’s powerful imagery, the yarn violates chronology in recounting Maren’s passionate love for her brother Evan (Anders W. Berthelsen), her forced marriage to an older man (Ulrich Thomsen), the arrival of her sister Karen (Katrin Cartlidge) and, later, of her brother and his new wife, Anethe (Vinessa Shaw).

Both the period and modern tales are imbued with suspense, benefiting from Bigelow’s penchant for creating a visual sense of menace and an atmosphere of fear. The earlier tale, replete with Freudian psychology in relating the women’s repression, jealousy and rage, unfortunately spells out every element and emotion. In contrast, the modern tale is more ambiguous and subtle, relying less on dialogue than on looks and gestures.

Since the story is told from a distinctly female p.o.v., the male roles, as scripted and acted, are not as impressive as the women’s. Penn’s performance is enigmatic. In a much simpler role that calls for a strong physical presence, Lucas acquits himself honorably.

Ultimately, pic belongs to the five women. Polley gives a mesmerizing perf as a victimized woman who finally finds expression in fierce fury. Quiet and contemplative, McCormack is equally riveting as the modern woman who sinks into depression as a result of personal and marital crises. In smaller parts, Hurley has never looked so sexy; Cartridge is commanding, as always; and Shaw is credibly cast as the naive bride.

Despite recurrent narrative and dramatic problems, each of Bigelow’s pics provides a visual treat, and this film is no exception. She and the producers have mounted a superlative production with top-notch contributions from lenser Biddle, designer Karl Juliusson, costumer Marit Allen and composer David Hirschfelder.

The Weight of Water

Production

A Studio Canal presentation of a Manifest Film Co./Palomar Pictures/Miracle Pictures production. Produced by Janet Yang, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, A. Kitman Ho. Executive producers, Lisa Henson, Steven-Charles Jaffe. Co-producers, Sean Wimmer, Chris Zimmer.

Crew

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Screenplay, Alice Arlen, Christopher Kyle, based on the novel by Anita Shreve. Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Adrian Biddle; editor, Howard E. Smith; music, David Hirschfelder; production designer, Karl Juliusson; art director, Mark Laing; set decorator, Patricia Larman; costume designer, Marit Allen; sound (Dolby/SDDS), Tod A. Maitland, Dennis Maitland; assistant director, David Webb; casting, Mali Finn. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 8, 2000. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Jean Janes - Catherine McCormack Maren Hontvedt - Sarah Polley Thomas Janes - Sean Penn Rich Janes - Josh Lucas Adaline Gunne - Elizabeth Hurley Louis Wagner - Ciaran Hinds John Hontvedt - Ulrich Thomsen Evan Christenson - Anders W. Berthelsen Karen Christenson - Katrin Cartlidge Anethe Christenson - Vinessa Shaw

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