If Kathryn Bigelow’s picture is any indication, “The Weight of Water” is heavy indeed. The director’s take on Anita Shreve’s novel mixes a farfetched explanation for a notorious 1873 New Hampshire double murder (for which a man was executed, wrongly in this account) with a contemporary story of an emotionally troubled wife whose suspicions about her husband’s fidelity lead to tragedy. It’s elegantly crafted but emotionally cold, a puzzle whose intricate construction one can admire but is difficult to connect with on any deeper level. The film took two years to find a distributor (it was screened to mixed response at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2000), and despite its many virtues it’s easy to understand why.

The film begins with the nineteenth-century strand of the narrative, showing how one Louis Wagner (Ciaran Hinds), a strange and troublesome fellow, is found guilty of killing two women, both Norwegian immigrants, on an island off the New Hampshire coast; the conviction comes on the basis of testimony from Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley), the sister of one victim and sister-in-law of the other. Cut to the present day, when Jean Janes (Catherine McCormack), an author and photographer, arrives at the scene to investigate the crime. She’s not alone: she and her husband Thomas (Sean Penn), a famous poet, are brought on the yacht of her brother-in-law Rich (Josh Lucas), who brings along his sultry girlfriend Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley). From here things proceed in a point-counterpoint fashion as Jean comes to suspect that Thomas is involved with Adaline–a circumstance that leads to tragedy when a storm strikes–while the “truth” about the old case is gradually revealed, via an explanation that involves incestuous inclinations, passionate rage and the execution of an innocent man.

There’s much that’s interesting here, though in the end the fractured structure and the coolness of the approach, along with a penchant for excessive ambiguity, especially in the modern half of the story, create a sense of emotional distance that most viewers will probably consider overly dry and elliptical. Still, one has to admire the film’s visual beauty: Adrian Biddle’s widescreen cinematography offers images that are often exquisite, and Karl Juliusson’s production design is wonderfully evocative in both the modern and the period segments. Some of the acting is excellent as well, especially in the nineteenth-century story. Polley creates a striking portrait of repression, and the late Katrin Cartlidge is equally impressive as her harsh, judgmental sister Karen; Vinessa Shaw is on a slightly lower plane as Anethe, her delicate sister-in-law. The men in the segment are more ordinary–this is a narrative in which the females dominate–but the handsome Hinds draws a compelling picture of a lustful, middle-aged outcast. The performances in the contemporary footage are more problematic; the writing is partially to blame, since the characters aren’t clearly drawn, and as a result the actors often seem at sea in the figurative as well as the literal sense. McCormack offers at best a generalized, amorphous discontent as Jean, and Penn does one of the weakest turns of his career, exuding a condescending smugness that seems entirely calculated and dramatically false. Hurley slinks about in various states of undress, but her acting would be charitably described as stilted. Only Lucas comes across as comfortable in a role that doesn’t require much more than a muscled torso and a bright smile.

“The Weight of Water” is in many respects an admirable film, and it certainly exhibits, though in a more restrained fashion, the skillful technique that Bigelow demonstrated in earlier work but squandered on the flamboyantly bad “Strange Days” and, more recently, the thoroughly pedestrian “K-19: The Widowmaker.” It’s flawed and bloodless, to be sure, but at least it isn’t vulgar or dull.