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With: Sean Penn, Elizabeth Hurley, Catherine McCormack, Sarah Polley, Josh Lucas, Ciarán Hinds, Katrin Cartlidge, Vinessa Shaw, Ulrich Thomsen, Anders W. Berthelsen, John Maclaren
Written by: Alice Arlen, Christopher Kyle, based on the novel by Anita Shreve
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexuality/nudity, and brief language
Running Time: 113
Date: 09/09/2000

The Weight of Water (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Gaining 'Weight'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Kathryn Bigelow's big comeback year turns to dust, and I find myself digging through the filthy pile, looking for remnants -- something to prove it was there, even if just for a little while.

Her severely underrated K-19: The Widowmaker blew me away but made other critics scratch their heads while audiences stayed home. Truthfully, it should never have been released among the brain-dead summer blockbusters; it was more of a serious December-type movie.

Now, after keeping it on the shelf for almost two years, Lion's Gate has decided to dump Bigelow's second movie this year, The Weight of Water, into San Francisco theaters -- the UA Galaxy and the Stonestown Twin -- with no advertising or promotion. That's a shame because it's even better than K-19 and ranks as her best film since her 1987 masterpiece Near Dark.

It's also her most emotionally and artistically ambitious. And I find myself in the sad position of trying to defend it rather than unabashedly praise it.

Sean Penn stars as Pulitzer Prize winning poet Thomas Janes, married to a workhorse photojournalist named Jean (Catherine McCormack). A magazine assigns Jean to do a story on a 100-year old murder case on the island of Smuttynose, off the coast of New Hampshire. With the help of Thomas' brother Rich (Josh Lucas) and his fancy luxury boat, they set out for rough waters.

Unfortunately, Rich has brought along his sexy new girlfriend, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley) who loves to sunbathe nude and who is endlessly fascinated by the brooding poet.

As Jean explores the murder mystery, Bigelow effortlessly flashes back to 1873 and tells the story of Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley), a young bride whisked away to America to a life of hard labor and not much else. A rheumatic lodger (Ciaran Hinds) tries to seduce her, and her dour sister Karen (Katrin Cartlidge) provides some empty conversation but Maren is not interested in anyone but her brother Evan (Anders W. Berthelsen).

Unfortunately, when Evan comes to stay, he brings his blushing new bride Anethe (Vinessa Shaw), bringing on a jealous fit in Maren.

Bigelow perfectly establishes a feel of place and time for both stories, and they're so radically different that you may find yourself shocked when 100 years flashes by in a single cut -- or even more so when Bigelow overlaps the sound from one era and the picture of another.

The rhythm of talk fluctuates like music; Polley affects a superb Norwegian accent and speaks very little, but her words weigh more than the very talky present-day characters, who talk a lot and tend to say very little. Peculiar, considering that one of them is a poet. (The best Penn's character can do is to quote Dylan Thomas.)

Bigelow also pays special attention to the huge amount of drudge work the 1873 characters had to perform simply to survive, while the year 2000 characters all live a life of ease. Likewise, the past characters constantly fight off the cold and the elements, while the modern-day characters bask mostly in warmth.

Viewers looking for a specific thematic connection between the two times are liable to be disappointed. Jealousy crops up as the most obvious one, but the outcome of both situations varies drastically. And I don't think Bigelow is really interested in anything so obvious or concrete.

Bigelow has always been one of our most reliable action directors, but she has always rooted her work within a thick, tactile atmosphere, whether it be the future, the Old West or on a submarine. In this film, she almost completely forgoes action (except the murder scene, which comes late in the film) in favor of her two atmospheres.

Which is not to say that she paints it thoughtlessly "pretty." Bigelow pulls no punches in her assertion that injustice happens. It happens randomly and without pity.

Most viewers who have managed to see The Weight of Water at film festivals have chimed in with mixed and baffled reactions, similar to those at the Lion's Gate offices. It breaks my heart to hear that when audiences encounter something as tough and beautiful as The Weight of Water they simply give up on it. This movie deserves better.

DVD Details: The new Lion's Gate DVD comes with a trailer.

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