Light breaks where no sun shines;
Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart
Push in their tides.
Light breaks where no sun shines
And death shall have no dominion.
In an uncanny coincidence, The Weight of Water and the recent Possession are both based on widely-read novels that each follow two parallel stories, one in the present investigating another in the historical past. But where Possession went back to Victorian England to find an idealized and romantic love story to contrast with a modern counterpart, The Weight of Water is darker, looking to a true story of a grisly double murder in 19th century New England which is being investigated by Jean Janes (Catherine McCormack), a photographer working on a magazine story about the case.
Jean and her husband Thomas (Sean Penn), a poet, along with Thomas’ brother, Rich (Josh Lucas), and his current squeeze, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley), are sailing to the Isles of Shoals, off the coast, where the murders took place.
The key characters in the murder story are Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley), a Norwegian immigrant living on desolate Smuttynose Island in a loveless marriage, her spinster sister Karen, her brother Evan and his bride, Anethe. Karen and Anethe are brutally murdered with an ax. Maren survives and accuses their boarder, Louis Wagner, of the murders; he is tried and convicted.
Director Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, K-19: The Widowmaker) skillfully cuts back and forth in time, not only between the 19th century and the present, but also within the 19th century story. She manages to keep the interplay of the plotlines clear, in itself no small accomplishment, given the complexity of the many relationships. Aided by the screenplay by Alice Arlen (Silkwood), the murder story is particularly compelling. It gradually reveals the emotional connections among the characters and the resulting motivations; lust, unfulfilled longing, and jealousy are all magnified in the isolation of island life.
The superficial parallels are clear in the contemporary story. Jean and Thomas are in a loveless marriage; Jean suspects a connection between Thomas and the unabashedly sensual Adaline and may even have a bit of attraction to her brother-in-law. Lust seems less an issue with these liberated people, but unfulfilled longing and jealousy are certainly in play. And they, too, are isolated on the boat and in close quarters.
But these are not precisely parallel situations; the deeper connections between the two stories on screen are harder to fathom and the movie suggests a more profound connection than it delivers. In a climactic scene, Jean experiences a moment of epiphany in which her experience of the present and her investigation of the past are presumed to illuminate her understanding of both. But the connection seems less meaningful than it ought to, in part because the obvious plot parallels were clear earlier on and, in part, because of the somewhat muddied and less than persuasive drawing of the emotional and motivational parallels. The constraints under which Maren lived a century before are simply inapplicable to Jean’s situation. Maren had few options; Jean has many.
If the film fails to fulfill its own ambitious goals, it nonetheless sustains interest during the long build-up of expository material. In no small part it is carried by accomplished performances by the entire cast. Particularly outstanding is Sarah Polley (The Claim, Guinevere) who seems to have a knack for choosing difficult roles in failed movies. As Maren, her initial stoic resignation to a life of hard work and absent pleasures is eroded away when the past catches up with her and her repressed needs explode into action.
Production values are high, with cinematographer Adrian Biddle’s seascapes and the landscape of the island providing appropriate backdrops and editor Howard E. Smith ably segueing between present and flashbacks. David Hirschfelder’s score, punctuated with mournful, bluesy saxophone solos is a notable plus as well.