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Photograph by John Sherlock

The Bad Old Days: Sarah Polley plays a 19th-century woman whose secrets are unbared in the 21st century in 'The Weight of Water.'

Ax in The Water

Kathryn Bigelow's 'The Weight of Water' features murder in the past and angst in the present

By Richard von Busack

INVESTIGATING a 130-year-old unsolved murder, a Boston photojournalist discovers unsounded depths in her own marriage in The Weight of Water. The comely but static Catherine McCormack plays Jean, a woman of today who can't settle for the official story of the twin murders that took place on Smuttynose Island on March 5, 1873. Though a local man (Ciaran Hinds) was convicted and hanged, Jean still harbors enough doubt to embark on a combination vacation and business trip to piece together the truth about the case. For the trip to the island, Jean boards the sailboat of her brother-in-law, Rich (Josh Lucas). Rich has brought along his current girlfriend, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley), an amoral Englishwoman given to topless sunbathing. To Jean's chagrin, it seems that her own husband--the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Thomas (Sean Penn)--had once been intimate with Adaline, and may be again.

Isolated from the fun-loving, hard-drinking trio, Jean looks into the history of the murder, which we see in flashback. It seems an open-and-shut case. According to the testimony of a surviving woman, Maren (Sarah Polley), a discarded handyman named Louis (Ciaran Hinds) invaded the isolated house where three women lived alone. The two victims were Maren's sister, Karen (the late, lamented Katrin Cartlidge), beaten and strangled, and Maren's sister-in-law, Anethe (Vinessa Shaw), killed with an ax. The culprit was hanged. Then, Jean stumbles across a hidden manuscript ...

Under Kathryn Bigelow's undistinguished direction, The Weight of Water is a turgid yet arid story. When Maren arrives on the dock of this New Hampshire fishing village, she looks like a Vermeer figure unwittingly transported to a Winslow Homer painting. It's as if she's never worked before. But soon she's wittingly oppressed by a bad woman (Cartlidge) and unwittingly by a good one (Shaw). The accents are indiscriminate, although, according to the end titles, they are supposed to be Norwegian. Polley's is Baltic or something; Cartlidge uses a stern and poisonous city-German drawl.

Apart from Cartlidge's sure-footed performance, the film abounds in awkwardness, from the too-early revelation of both the killer and the motive. That voice-over of the lost manuscript in which Maren confesses her secret life, overlaid on her dolorous round of chores, would be the most highfalutin writing in the film, if it weren't for the poetry of Penn's character. The Thomas must be short for Dylan Thomas; this character has delusions of Celticism. Watching Penn, I remembering that he'd once made his best impressions in comedy. Those days are long lost now, and now Penn appears again and again with seriousness wrapped around him like a cape. Onscreen, he's become "distinguished" (i.e., uninteresting) in the way that titled British actors do when they become institutions. The Weight of Water is the kind of movie that ends with a tempest, and you're nastily disappointed that anyone survives.

The Weight of Water (R; 114 min.), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Alice Arlen and Christopher Kyle, based on the novel by Anita Shreve, photographed by Adrian Biddle and starring Katrin Cartlidge, Elizabeth Hurley, Catherine McCormack and Sean Penn, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the October 31-November 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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