Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Film Review #103: The Weight of Water
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Sarah Polley, Catherine McCormick, Sean Penn

Smuttynose Island lies six miles off the rocky coast of southern Maine, almost into New Hampshire waters, the third largest of a cluster of nine islands together called the Isles of Shoals. Smuttynose gets its name from the profuse growth of thick seaweed in the shallows off one nose-shaped corner of the island. Myth says the pirate Blackbeard honeymooned on Smuttynose. In real life, two women, sisters-in-law in a Norwegian immigrant fishing family, were murdered there one night in March 1873 while their men were away, one strangled, both hacked with an axe. A third woman, Maren Hontvedt, reported that she fled to the pitch dark shore and hid through the night beneath a craggy, spray-soaked overhang that is still called Maren’s Rock.

Not much else seems to have happened there – except for a Spanish shipwreck in 1813 and the establishment of an arts community by the poet Celia Thaxter on nearby Appledore Island – so the well-attended mainland trial and hanging of itinerant German fisherman Louis Hinds, accused by Maren Hontvedt, was a sensation. Various lurid theories have persisted – Thaxter herself wrote one book – and in 1997 novelist Anita Shreve published The Weight of Water.

Shreve then quickly signed to co-author a screen version which, like her best-selling book, presented the Smuttynose murders not as a free-standing historical event but as true crime filtered through the curiosity and imagination of a modern-day journalist investigating for a magazine piece. The movie takes the journalist, named Jean (Catherine McCormick), there aboard her brother-in-law’s sloop with her “difficult” poet-husband Thomas (Sean Penn) and the brother-in-law’s girl friend Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley). This quartet engages in considerable self-flagellation out of guilt and jealousy, and their voyage ends badly during a storm.

The Weight of Water premiered in 2000 at Toronto’s international film festival and went to 18 other countries before finally opening in the US nearly two years later. Irish actor Ciarán Hinds plays the accused fisherman. He gropes the women at the humble cabin where he lodges when his rheumatism prevents him from working. After he grabs a new bride in the family, Maren accuses him of stealing money and her husband brusquely evicts him. His glowering, resentful exit suggests a ready-made cover story for the forthcoming double murder.

Sarah Polley plays Maren and this is her film from start to finish. Polley is the remarkable Canadian actor in her late 20s who wrote and directed the new, also remarkable Away from Her, starring Julie Christie, which has been out at Manlius Cinema this week. The DVD release of another Polley acting gig in the little-seen 2005 Spanish film, The Secret Life of Words, coincided with the opening of Away From Her. Discovering The Weight of Water was part of rounding up the few stray Polley films I hadn’t seen yet.

Polley’s Maren in a Norwegian girl forcibly married into servitude to an older man after a family scandal. John Hontvedt (Ulrich Thomsen) heads for the New World’s opportunities and lands on this two-cabin speck of fishing island. About ten years into their marriage it occurs to him that his young, silent, hard-toiling wife might be lonely, so he brings a puppy home to keep her company. Then Maren’s older, jealous, pinch-faced sister Karen (Katrin Cartlidge) arrives – her judgment originally condemned Maren to this fate and now she needs their hospitality – followed by their adored brother Evan (Anders Berthelsen) and his effervescent bride Anethe (Vinessa Shaw). Of all the melodrama that occurs during this film – in 1873 or in the present – Maren’s behavior is the most extreme. Yet she is the character who seems the least melodramatic, whose reasons and desperation are the clearest. Maren’s story – which really is just the subplot anyway, the historical nugget of truth to get journalist Jean (Catherine McCormack) on her quest – is actually the part of this movie easiest to identify with.

This is one of those stories where a dramatized historical event is framed by a modern fictional one, presumably because the example of a contemporary character’s curiosity about a distant, removed event will maybe rub off on us – a kind of psychological body English. This play-within-a-play device has a long and honorable lineage of mutual illumination. But here, it’s murky and distracting, and suggests that the film’s audience can’t imagine its way into Maren’s story without a guide. Sarah Polley makes that story a small gem worth finding.

This review appeared in the 5/24/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent films that did not open theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.