Tragedy is timeless, but “gothic” is an antique adjective. Timeworn usage has grammatically married the word to “romance” and “horror” — genres with a hidden and tragic, incestuous relationship. Their opposing-yet-irresistible forces generate The Weight of Water’s dark whirlpool, which swirls and knots together the tragic plots of two women separated by more than a century, recalling shades of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).
Gothic horror, such as Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is 19th century stuff made of letters, testaments and confessions found and disclosed after the tragic deaths of their writers. The Weight of Water opens as indigo-blue water roils, fragmenting moonlight and obscuring handwritten text later disclosed as an 1899 testament of Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley, The Sweet Hereafter).
Maren isn’t a mad doctor, but she has been entangled in a monstrous act. On the freezing night of March 5, 1873, her nightdress splattered in blood, the young Norwegian housewife hides in a cave on the rocky shores of Smuttynose, one of the Isles of Shoals 10 miles off the coast of New Hampshire. The next day, her brother, Evan Christenson (Anders W. Berthelsen, Italian for Beginners), returns from the sea to find the bludgeoned bodies of their severe elder sister, Karen (Katrin Cartlidge, Breaking the Waves), and his pretty young wife, Anethe (Vinessa Shaw, Eyes Wide Shut), in Smuttynose’s sole dwelling that claustrophobically sheltered their extended family. Their brooding former boarder, Louis Wagner (Ciarán Hinds, The Road to Perdition), stands accused of the murders committed in the cramped red house.
Blood is thicker than water, but both tidally surge, pulled by a tragic gravity, that of the grotesque dark side — the gothic side — of Janus-faced romance. The Weight of Water wells up from this 19th century genre, which is classically embodied in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Dark and weird elements float below the surface, each a link in a chain of tragedy: mysteriously attractive strangers, forbidden loves, guilt, shame and untimely deaths.
Jean (Catherine McCormick, Spy Game) is a professional photographer. She takes a busman’s holiday to the Isles of Shoals with her husband (Sean Penn) aboard his brother Rich’s (Josh Lucas, Sweet Home Alabama) old sailboat. Alluring Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley, Serving Sara), Rich’s new woman, is also on board. Her sexual presence has a tangible weight that erotically tenses the plot line — and releases a chain of events that plunge Jean into the emotional depths of the murders she’s merely come to document.
Anita Shreve’s novel, The Weight of Water, is a literary gothic symphony. Told as a first-person narrative, Jean’s story sympathetically echoes the one she investigates in the archived documents of Maren’s life. The unleashed erotic fury of the feminine id transcends time and seeps through the membrane of aged paper that lies between the two women. Jean feels compelled to solve the murders, and Maren’s tragedy subtly possesses her psyche. Between the lines of Shreve’s novel are the reverberations of two other gothic genres: 19th century detective and ghost stories.
Screenwriters Alice Arlen (Silkwood) and Christopher Kyle (K-19: The Widowmaker) drain most of Shreve’s subtleties and some of the novel’s essence so that they may be contained on the screen. But many of the themes and emotion remain.
Director Kathryn Bigelow pieces together these two tragedies, telling the story in pictures that are sometimes grim and frankly frame the horror. Her images span centuries of art history as she renders moving Vermeer portraits of Maren’s domestic still life and depicts Jean’s imaginings in grainy, low-key, uncannily saturated color images that bring to mind the photographs of David Hamilton: portraits on the verge of timelessness and forbidden eroticism. She makes lyrical abstractions of uncanny cobalt light and boiling seawater.
Bigelow’s previous action work (from the 1987 vampire chiller, Near Dark, through this year’s submarine tragedy, K-19: The Widowmaker) exercised her mastery of time and space. Here, motion flows from an uncanny rush to freeze in Jean’s professionally framed black-and-white compositions. Her telephoto shots compress the claustrophobia of Maren’s cabin fever into Jean’s much more open life, generating an anxious visual energy.
With The Weight of Water, her first woman’s story since the police thriller Blue Steel a decade ago, Bigelow puts the fluid weight of her cinematic mastery — and maturity — on screen.
Showing exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward, S of Maple, Birmingham). Call 248-644-3456.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.