For those used to the usual Hollywood clichés, the prospect of a boatload of innocents visiting an isolated scene of an old terror might suggest the imminent arrival of vengeful possession. To their credit, Bigelow and her source are above such routine stuff, although the script manages some genuinely creepy moments as Jean (Catherine McCormack) contemplates the gruesome past of Smuttynose Island on and off shore. But, as other reviewers have noted, The Weight Of Water is less about ghastly occurrences than a parallel study of two women, both trapped in loveless relationships. One, the 19th century immigrant Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley) reacts with uncharacteristic violence; Jean, the other, is powerless (or even initially willing?) when seeing her man slipping away - either emotionally or then physically.
So stark and successful are the scenes set in the past (the first time that Bigelow has directed such historical material) that one wishes that the modern day episodes aboard the Antares were more engrossing. Part of this is to do with the casting. Although much better than she would prove next in Bedazzled, Elizabeth Hurley as the coquettish Adaline Gunn is simply too shallow an actress to suggest the complexities and depths that her part deserves. Some of this is the script's fault, giving her little chance to express herself in anything but blatant body language. Whether lounging in her provocative white bikini, or sucking and toying with ice cubes like a nymphet, arousing the poet Thomas (a troubled Sean Penn), our interest in her is usually limited to whether she succeeds in seducing half of the dysfunctional couples sharing the yacht. "Women's motives are always more concealed than men's," suggests Thomas at one point. Unfortunately, in Adaline's case at least, they are as obvious as the look on her face.
Both the house on Smuttynose Island and the 'sort-of vacation' enjoyed by those on the Antares, are threatening and claustrophobic. The atmosphere between consenting adults on board reminds one at times of that on the boat in Polanski's Knife In The Water (aka: Nóz w wodzie, 1962), although events turn out differently. As Jean observes, at the time of the killings it was felt that Louis Wagner (Ciarán Hinds) "was in love with one of the women, (and that) murder was the only way he could possess her."
"I like that," comments Adaline tritely, unconsciously inviting an echo of this obsessive behaviour towards herself. At one point a rogue wind literally flaps her in some original documents relating to the case, a tangible suggestion of a bond between past and present. Although she doesn't succumb to the same Lizzie Borden-nightmare that took place on shore, the tension is there.
On board the Antares from the start, the drama of sexual attraction is of more import than the violence of historical events, even though it is the old criminal case that has drawn Jean, leaving its emotional shadow. It is apt that her preoccupation with it partly makes her refuse Thomas' belated advances in the archive library. Usually, before this moment of romance, he glumly chain-smokes; decrying the sensitivity which first attracted Jean. (Indeed for a poet, he remains curiously inexpressive of his feelings.) It turns out that while contemplating the tanning body of Adaline he's absorbed with the death of an old girl friend in a car crash, one for which he was responsible and which inspires his famous poetry. In contrast, Rich Janes (Josh Lucas) the poet's brother and Adaline's current lover, seems unaffected either literature or the strained atmosphere - even at one point making light of his own lack of emotional commitment. With such a crew, the main difference between the 19th and the 21st century seems to be that of emotional engagement. All of the real 'drama' takes place in the wood cabin. On the yacht it is left deliberately shallow, and largely unexpressed - even if just as desperate.
It is Bigelow's skilful cutting between that century and this, and her suggestions of patterns both here and there, which makes the film so enjoyable. The film stands or falls by this technique and a typical criticism of it has been that 'the issues are subtle to the point of mere implication', or that the final moments of catharsis carry little weight as 'so little of dramatic interest' precedes them. But much of the pleasure from the picture lays precisely in the undecided or the unspoken, where a wife's desperation can be blown away in the wind and sea, and love is a trap. A more exact resolution of Jean's emotional dilemma, or a stricter line drawn between time zones would have reduced the mystery and interest considerably. This is a film where it is simply enough, as Jean rightly observes, "that you sense something is about to happen - and when you realise it already has."
Hurley's shortcomings as an actress aside, most of the cast is excellent. Sarah Polley seems to have found her dramatic niche in cheerless historical settings (she was also in Winterbottom's excellent The Claim, 2000) and projects just the right degree of Scandinavian angst. Bigelow uses all of her locations effectively, with some especially impressive shoreline work, and the plot flows easily. This director's admirers should seek this out, and welcome her talent back without delay.