In its basic structure and format, `The Weight of Water' is very similar to the far more impressive film `Possession' from 2002. In both movies, we get two different stories running simultaneously: one, a mystery set in the past, and, the other, a personal drama located in the present, involving a group of characters reflecting on and trying to make sense of the events that took place a century or so earlier.
The story-within-a-story in `The Weight of Water' is a true-life account of a brutal double murder that took place on a remote island off the coast of New Hampshire in the 1870's. Two out of the three women who were on the island that fateful night fell victim to the murderer, with the third escaping and fingering a man - a former boarder - as the culprit. The man was convicted and hanged for the offense, yet, more than a century later, a shadow of doubt hangs over the verdict. One of the modern-day doubters is Jean Janes, a photographer who ventures to the island to do a shoot of the location, only to find herself strangely obsessed with uncovering the truth about the case. Accompanying her on her quest are her husband, Thomas, a celebrated poet; Rich, his handsome brother whose boat they use to get to the island; and Adaline, the latter's gorgeous girlfriend who also happens to be a devotee of Thomas' literary work and a bit of a `groupie,' as it turns out, in both tone and temperament, attaching herself rather obviously to the talented young bard, despite the fact that his observant wife is on the boat with them. As in `Possession,' the filmmakers in this film - screenwriters Alice Arlen and Christopher Kyle and director Kate Bigelow - shift constantly between the past and the present, allowing us to piece together the clues as to what really happened on that island over 130 years ago, and, at the same time, to examine the strained relationships among those contemporary figures looking for the answers.
The problem with `The Weight of Water' - as it is in many films with this dual-narrative structure - is that one story almost inevitably ends up dominating over the other. Certainly, both tales seem to want to make the same unified point: that love and passion are often such overwhelming forces in our lives that they can end up destroying us in the process. How often do luck, fate, personal demons or societal pressure force us to compromise those elemental passions raging within our hearts, leading us, ultimately, to all the wrong choices and wrong partners that we end up having to live with for the rest of our lives? This is certainly the case in the part of the story set in the past where loneliness, regret, even incest and lesbianism play a crucial part in what happens to the characters. We can understand what motivates these individuals to do what they do, since their hungers, needs and intentions are cleanly laid out and clearly defined.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the outer story set in the present. These characters lack the necessary delineation to make us truly understand where they are coming from or to make us care where they are going. Catherine McCormack does a superb job as Jean, capturing the fears, jealousies and anxieties of this insecure modern woman, but the screenplay doesn't let us into her mind enough to show us what is really going on beneath the surface. We know that she is unhappy in her marriage, but we never really get to know why. The situation is not helped one bit by Sean Pean who barely registers an emotion in the crucial role of Jean's husband. Apart from the fact that he seems to be brooding all the time, we never get the sense that Thomas could really be the world-class poet we are told he is. As Adaline, Josh's tawny-haired girlfriend, Hurley looks great in her bikini, of course, but the character is little more than the stereotypical temptress placed there by the writers to serve as a source of strain and tension on the marriage. The movie also builds to a mini- `Perfect Storm'-type climax that seems forced, phony, arbitrary and all too convenient and, worst of all, fails to make the connection between the two narratives clear and comprehensible. The final scenes seem strained at best, as the authors attempt to bring all the disparate elements together - but to no real avail. The fact is that the filmmakers never make their case as to why we should find any kind of meaningful parallels between the characters and events in the two stories. The characters in the past are obviously hemmed in by the repressive society in which they live so we give them a little leeway and offer them our sympathy; the characters in the present, with so many more options open to them, just come across as whiney and self-pitying and we find ourselves growing more and more impatient with them (all except Jean, that is) as the story rolls along.
`The Weight of Water' wants to be an important and meaningful film, but only one half of its story truly earns those adjectives.