The long-awaited film version of WEIGHT OF
WATER has finally been released in
the USA. Panned by critics and all
but abandoned by its distributor, the film finally arrived in its home
town of Portsmouth, NH where the 1873 murderer lived
two victims are buried today. At the request of the NH Gazette,
SeacoastNH.com editor J. Dennis Robinson attended the recent showing
and responded to questions about the murder, the novel and the film.
Robinson and his wife are among a dozen pairs of Smuttynose Island
stewards who oversee the island for its owners each summer.
It bombed. After its premier in Toronto two years ago, the Kathryn
Bigelow film didnít resonate with audiences and went back into the can,
which often happens with films. Some never reappear. Some go directly to
video. This one was distributed in Europe and finally resurfaced for a
half-hearted showing by Lionís Gate Films on 27 screens last November. The
critics hammered at it again. The $16 million production netted $45,888 at
its reopening according to Internet Movie Database. So far, according to
film web site, it has yet to gross a quarter of a million domestically.
Right now you can rent it on VHS in Greece or buy a DVD on eBay shipped
from China, but you canít see it anywhere else.
How did you see it?
It played for two days at the Portsmouth Music Hall last week. Kathryn Bigelow and author Anita Shreve would have been proud. The 850-seat theater was filled to the rafters both days at $8 per ticket. It was, according to the Music Hall, the most profitbale film every shown there. The second night people were turned away at the door. A number of us had hoped for a US premier in Portsmouth Ė since the filmt is about local history Ė but nothing came of that. When Lionís Gate finally released it in November 2002, despite requests, the Portsmouth Music Hall initially said it would never run a film of "that" quality. But they relented when the story got into the newspapers, and ate a little crow when patrons lined up at the door. The Music Hall has promised to show it again. I assumed that everyone attending knew the backstory, but the kids behind me in the theatre were clueless that the film had been a best-selling novel, and had never heard of the Isles of Shoals.
Was "Weight" worth the wait?
It was for me. Many of us who know the backstory and the Smuttynose Island all too well wanted to see how Anita Shreveís novel would play out on the big screen with stars like Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley. Moreso, we wanted to see the 19th century crime, on which both the novel and film are based, fleshed out on a big budget. This is a haunting tale. As Smuttynose stewards, my wife and I spend a week each year alone on Smuttynose Island. One of my chores is to clear the grass from around the stone foundation of the "murder" house. I was hoping the film would give me a clearer visual picture of what happened there in 1873 Ė and it did that extremely well.
I have to agree with the critics generally and say "no". Other than the superb reconstruction of the events leading up to the Smuttynose crime, the film never comes together. Half of the film takes place in contemporary times and those characters, including Sean Penn, are wooden and unbelievable. The sexy scenes were so silly that audience members giggled. When Penn tries to seduce his wife in the Portsmouth Courthouse archives, the giggling turned to solid laughter. The ending, where all the pieces should come together, is loud and chaotic. After setting up two elaborately plotted stories, it was as if an angry hand simply knocked the whole complex construction down. The final storm is supposed to be symbolic and cathartic. It was neither.
So itís not worth seeing?
I didnít say that. In fact, most of the people I
spoke to said they were glad they had seen the film. Sometimes an
imperfect work of art can be perfectly fascinating. The original premise
of the novel, the cinematography, the costumes, the detailed
reconstruction of Smuttynose island and the Hontvet "murder" house, some
of the authorís literary symbolism, the acting of the Norwegian cast (especially Sarah Poley as Maren) Ė all these pieces are, to
my mind, extraordinary. If Hirley had been less openly seductive,
and Penn replaced by an older actor, and the hurly-burly
less blustery -- this thing might have worked. Audeinces are, I think,
less in need of Fisher-Price plot motivation than Hollywoode screenwriters think.
What is the real story of the Smuttynose Murders?
In 1873 Louis Wagner, a Prussian immigrant living in Portsmouth, stole a boat and rowed to the Isles of Shoals to rob the house of a fisherman living on Smuttynose Island. Wagner knew John Hontvet would not be home that night because they had met in Portsmouth. Honvet told Wagner that the train delivering his bait was late, forcing him and his brother-in-law Evan to leave their wives Maren and Anethe alone on the island. Wagner knew that John had been saving up for a new boat. He knew the island well because he had worked for John and lived in the house. What Wagner didnít know was that Karen, Marenís sister had been fired from her job working for Celia Thaxterís family at the Appledore Hotel. Karen was sleeping in the kitchen of the house and cried out when Wagner entered the house. In a panic, Wagner hit Karen with a chair, then killed Anethe outdoors with ax as she tried to escape. Wagner returned and strangled Karen, but Maren escaped. It was Marenís deposition that convicted Wagner who, though he denied the crime, was hanged in Alfred, Maine two years later just before the state abolished the death penalty.
How is the novel "Weight of Water" different?
Fascinated by the Smuttynose story, bestselling author Anita Shreve used much of the historical detail including authentic dialogue from Wagnerís trial transcript and Marenís deposition. Shreveís contemporary protagonist Jean James visits Smuttynose on a photography assignment, and comes to the conclusion that Maren, not Wagner, committed the crime. While researching the story at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, Jean James finds and purloins a lost letter by Maren confessing to the crime. The plot moves back and forth between the 1873 tale and the story of five people on a sailboat. Jean is sailing with her husband, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, her young daughter, the poetís brother and his sexy girlfriend. Both stories come together at the end in a stormy conclusion.
Is the film faithful to the novel?
Very much so. You can tell because the Smuttynose history shines through very clearly. The contemporary story on the yacht is compressed a little to 17 hours, which helps make that part of the tale especially contrived. The main characterís daughter is left behind to allow for more sexual teasing between Hurley and Penn. That, I think, was a bad decision. The Penn-Hurley relationship, more than anything, hurts the film. The presence of the daughter would have softened things. Viewers I talked to were confused by the two plots, but this is the way the novel moves. Shreve did a nice job of comparing the crowded house on Smuttynose in winter to the cramped space on the yacht in summer. The comparison between the erupting psychology of Maren and Jean James didnít work for me in the book or in the novel.
Is the novel faithful to history?
This is the stickiest point of all. The novel starts out reciting chapter and verse from the Isles of Shoals guide books. In fact, in the film, the contemporary characters are reading from the very guide book Ė written by a local man named Laurence Bussey Ė that we hand out to visitors on the island. The film opens with historic images of Louis Wagner, and an accurate map of the Isles of Shoals from one of Peter Randallís books. The trial scene is well staged, but in reality, Maren did not testify in court. But, of course, as the protagonist concocts her fictional "Maren" theory, the fun goes out of the story for we historians. The imagined incest subplot that bubbles under the surface seems gratuitous to me. Since the confession letter from Maren in the novel is fictional, the author then has to warp the facts to fit the fictional story and the realism quickly turns to sensationalism. By creating fictional motivations for Maren to become a killer, the author loses the drama and horror inherent in the historical event. This is a bigger flaw in the film than in the novel since it is easier to imagine these events than to actually watch them in Technicolor. Something about the big screen makes it all more improbable.
And this blending of fact and fiction bothers people?
It bothered me a lot at first, but Iím over it. I still wince when people who don't know the facts say "I think Maren did it." But they are tlkaing about a fictional Maren. I just finished a novel of my own in which I played with history and fact, and Iím feeling a little more forgiving than I was years ago. My personal problem here is twofold. First, I donít think the Maren theory works. The real story about Louis Wagner, to my mind, is so much more compelling than the silly "conspiracy" theories. I donít think an alternate view is needed, and all the trumped up themes of jealousy and sexuality make less sense to me than the facts in the case Ė Louis, a thief, turned violent when caught. Secondly, I find it troubling that an actual living person -- a woman who most likely was victimized, traumatized and nearly killed -- is depicted as herself the murderer. Maybe itís just karma, but Iíd hate to read a novel in which my grandmother was treated that way. The story is so well crafted that people cannot tell where the history leaves off and the fiction begins.
So you believe Louis Wagner did it.
I do. In fact, seeing the story so well depicted on the big screen only confirmed my belief. Ciaran Hinds, the actor who played Wagner, did a great job of getting his smarmy personality across. Wagner had a way with ladies, but he was a slacker and a liar. "Weight of Water" of course, does not show Wagner rowing out to the island, or delivering a pitiful alibi in court, or running away to Boston by train the day after the murder -- having shaved, cleaned up and bought new clothes. Wagner gave up without a word when arrested in a Boston hotel. It all makes much more sense than Maren hacking up her own sister and sister-in-law because of bottled up sexual dysfunction. Címon. get real.
But didnít Wagner say he was innocent? And who could row that far?
Letís not go there. Every murderer on death row says heís innocent. OJ Simpson says heís innocent. Wagner was a sleazy guy, but he was a fisherman, the kind of guy who rows a dory for a living. Rowing to Smuttynose is not an impossible task. Thereís an annual rowing race there every year. The key to Wagnerís guilt, I think, is that he never expected to get caught. He was going to slip into the cove at the island, steal the money, and take off. But things went badly, and he was spotted by women who knew him. He ended up finding only about $15 in the house, which prosecutors said was what he spent during his flight to Boston. Remember, it was Maren who identified Wagner. If Louis Wagner had been seen by even one person in Portsmouth the night of the murder, Marenís accusation would have been disproved. But he had no alibi. He was not seen at any of the bars he reportedly visited, odd also for a man who did not drink. He didnít show up at his boarding house that night on Marcy Street (then Water Street).
What about the alternative murder theories?
Weíre getting way off the topic of the film here, but letís deal with the "other" murder theories once and for all. The Smuttynose tragedy became a who-dunnit in the early 20th century. A writer named Edmund Pearson wrote about the murder for one of the popular True Detective pulp magazines. That article was later anthologized into a book called "Murder at Smuttynose and Other Stories." Since then it has been treated as an "open case" although the actual jury took less than an hour to reach its decision in 1873. Lyman Rutledge, a Shoals historian, picked up on the detective crime theme in his booklet about the murders, and Anita Shreve picked up on Ruttledge.
So back to the movie. What are the best scenes?
The opening scene, where Louis Wagner is carted through the streets of
Portsmouth feels very authentic. When Maren confronts him in his jail
cell, the scene resonates with reality. The reconstruction of the Hontvet
house (The real one burned down 125 years ago) is a dead ringer for the
one in the famous photos of the house. Director Kathryn Bigelow did an
incredible job "growing" the house through time. When Maren and John
arrive from Norway it is empty, bleak and foreboding. It becomes more
homey, warm and colorful as the years pass and more members of the family
arrive in America. Yet the rocky bleakness of Smuttynose Island remains
effectively in the foreground. There are no best scenes in the
contemporary story. The characters smoke a lot of cigarettes, smirk, drink
a lot of wine, have banal conversations and cast melodramatic glances at
one another to imply smoldering inner emotions that never rise to any
Personally, I am sick to death of films that juxtapose sex and violence. Kathryn Bigelow is a very talented director, but she seems determined to prove that women can be as violent as men, and that women directors can show violence onscreen just like the big boys. Violence is our national disease and this film does nothing to explain or solve the problem. The excuse that itís all just "Art" and a mirror of our society is total crap, in my humble view. Directors and producers have a responsibility to stop, not to expand the madness. It's all, very simply, about making money shocking a population that is almost shock-proof. A film like "Picnic at Hanging Rock" is 100 times more emotionally powerful becuase the violence is implied, never seen. We are addicted to violence. In "Weight" we never truly sympathize with the victims. When Evan discovers his slain wife at the opening of the film, there is an emotional charge. But the ultimate killing scene is more like "Dawn of the Dead". IN fact, it's worse because the soundtrack here is filled with angelic singing, as if Maren is on some sort of missing from God. I found it sickening. We're more concerned with Maren's motivations than with the victims, and so the humanity of the tale is lost. Why a good director would want to be Sam Peckinpaw is beyond my understanding.
Any great little flaws in the film?
The film thinks Smuttynose Island is in New Hampshire, when it is in Maine. But that fact even confused the lawyers in 1873 until someone got out a map. There is a scene where a teakettle with no whistle whistles. Thereís no snow in March in the film. The characters swim in the open Atlantic Ocean, which can be pretty damn cold even in summer. The other Isles of Shoals and the other houses on 19th century Smuttynose seem to be missing. But generally the prop and continueity people did a bang-up job.
Are you done with this movie?
Not by a long shot. Iíll get the DVD the minute it comes out to study the Smuttynose scenes even closer. Iíd like to interview the people who built the sets and designed the costumes. If the reconstructed Hontvet house is still standing in Nova Scotia, Iíd like very much to spend an hour inside it. That, for me, would be the greatest part of this whole crazy ride. The story is really all about Anita Shreve's fascination with the story of Maren, Karen and Anethe. Thousands of visitors to the Shoals have felt it too. Now a million more people will want to know the real story too. That's the human connection that I find endlessly fascinating.
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