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Weight of Water: Vengeance from Beyond the Grave?

So, is this cross-temporal drama a ghost story?

It features dual narratives: one tracing events that led to a double murder committed 100 years previously; the other, in the present, involving a photojournalist (Jean Janes) returning to the island where the murders took place, in order to research a feature article on them. The photojournalist (Catherine McCormack) is accompanied by her husband (a Pulitzer-prize winning poet, Thomas Janes, played with suitably melancholic affectation by Sean Penn), her brother-in-law, Rich, and her brother-in-law's sexually provocative new girlfriend, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley). Underlying inadequacies in the journalist's relationship with her husband create tensions that increasingly find a form of expression in the unraveling details of the murder. Thematically, events in both past and present resonate with repressed emotion, guilt and sexual longing.

The fact that both narratives centre to some degree around the murders -- and hence place the present against a rather gothic past -- creates the perfect literary milieu for a ghost story. As understanding of the historic events becomes more and more detailed and the emotions that precipitated them become, in a way, less resolved, the increasing tension and sense of violence they generate seems almost to bring out the tensions between the characters in the present -- as though the past is haunting the present and using the inevitability of the poet-husband's death as a form of resolution to both stories ("An obsession that refuses to die" says the tag-line on the DVD cover). The connection between the two time periods is a cinematic one; there comes a point where the imperatives of narrative alone exert an apparent influence from past to present and insist on bringing the two stories together. Rapid intercutting between past and present ensures this, as emotions reach a climax in both time-frames concurrently. It is as though the one causes the other.

Arguably, of course, such a "haunting" doesn't operate on an "objective" or rational level within the film; its reality is purely artistic, driven by technical synchronicities. But it operates nevertheless, and it is this irrational connection that gives us a lingering sense that something supernatural has occurred, though on an objective level within the narrative it hasn't.

Director Kathryn Bigelow creates various cinematic connections that reinforce the sense of inter-relationship between people and events -- and give a supernatural aftertaste to the film. Penn's poet is suffering from guilt over a drunken car accident in the past -- an accident that caused the death of a young girl, his love at that time. This guilt has fed into his poetry and given it an obsessive force. His brother's new girlfriend, Adaline, who provokes him sexually and bonds with him through fascination for his poetry (and its expression of tragic loss), causes his death when she plunges into the storm-wracked sea and he leaps in to save her. Curiously, in a flashback to the car accident that has defined the poet's life and work, the girlfriend is played by Hurley. It is only a momentary glimpse, but the effect is to forge a connection between this long dead girl and Adaline in the present -- as though, perchance, the one is a reincarnation of the other. Has the dead girl returned to exact revenge? On a naturalistic level, of course, the flashback can be seen as taking form from photojournalist Jean's jealousy of Adaline -- it is Jean who is telling the story of the accident and she is more than conscious of provocative Adaline's allure for her husband; visualising the dead girl in terms of the current sexual "obsession" is no great stretch.

Bigelow further reinforces the cross-temporal connection between the two through a necklace Adaline is wearing. The dead girl had worn a similar ornament (though, again, the fact that Adaline is wearing one may simply indicate her familiarity and obsession with the famous poet's work). During the watery climax, as Adaline falls into the sea (and is allowed to do so by Jean who realises what is to happen and does not intervene -- a scene that immediately cuts to the horrific violence of the historical murder), Bigelow gives us a close shot of the necklace floating into the depths. The effect of this is to grant it an almost talismanic quality. Shortly afterwards, Thomas leaps in to save Adaline and is subsequently lost. It is as though his guilt has made him aware of the connection between past love and current attraction, and this is an act of atonement. The necklace, symbolising the tragedy of the girl's death, disappears into the darkness beneath the weight of water.

But that is not the least of it. The extended climax is a complex interweaving of images that serve to created connections between all the stories we have been following. Anger, jealousy, frustration, guilt -- these are all connected across time by various juxtapositionings. Jean herself leaps into the sea in a futile attempt to help her husband and as she sinks into the water she is confronted first by the most innocent victim of the historical murders -- and then, more threateningly, by the murderer herself. Both are floating there, eyes open and aware, like living corpses, representing aspects of what she is experiencing now herself. This, too, is an ambiguously supernatural occurrence -- clearly the two figures are to be taken as subjective manifestations -- but their presence emphasises the possibility of an influence across time, or at least the continuity and continual re-emergence of the central passions of the film... like a ghost reaching out from the past. Fate, supernatural revenge, ghostly possession: all these common elements of the ghost story are present by suggestion, though none of them are ever confirmed beyond the technical connections made.

Many effective ghost stories refuse to resolve the central uncertainty as to whether the events depicted are real or subjective. Perhaps it is in the nature of ghosts to be ambiguous. At any rate, though interpretation of Weight of Water must lean toward psychological explanations for its events (because the connections remain part of the film maker's technique rather than arising from the plot itself), the final effect of watching it is, for me, that of watching a ghost story... and that's how I'll choose to classify it on my DVD shelves.

But is this a "good" film? Well, I think it works very effectively -- for me, it was engaging, often beautiful and of considerable power, despite the difficulties of its resolution... which merely gave me an incentive to re-view it. Admittedly the historical story is the most powerful part, but that doesn't need to take away from the narrative effectiveness of the "frame" itself.


Production company:
Le Studio Canal+ [fr]
Miracle Pictures
imX Communications Inc. [ca]

Production Date: 2000 [released 2003]

Country: USA / France / Canada


Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Runtime: 113 min

Kathryn Bigelow

Anita Shreve (novel)
Alice Arlen
Christopher Kyle

Executive Producer:
Lisa Henson
Steven-Charles Jaffe

A. Kitman Ho
Sigurjon Sighvatsson
Janet Yang

Original Music:
David Hirschfelder

Adrian Biddle

Catherine McCormack
Sarah Polley
Sean Penn
Josh Lucas
Elizabeth Hurley
Ciarán Hinds
Ulrich Thomsen
Anders W. Berthelsen
Katrin Cartlidge

Rating: 7.5/10

IMDB link Note: This article was joint winner of the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review, awarded at the 44th National SF Convention (Thylacon 2005) held in Hobart 10-13 June 2005.
copyright©Robert Hood 2004

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