Dir: Kathryn Bigelow. US-Fr. 2000. 110 mins.

Prod cos: Manifest Film Co, Palomar Pictures, Miracle Pictures. Int'l sales: Le Studio Canal Plus (33) 1 44 43 98 00. Exec prods: Lisa Henson, Steven-Charles Jaffe. Prods: Janet Yang, Joni Sighvatsson, A Kitman Ho. Scr: Alice Arlen, Chris Kyle, from the novel by Anita Shreve. DoP: Adrian Biddle. Prod des: Karl Juliusson. Ed: Arthur Coburn. Mus: David Hirschfelder. Main cast: Sean Penn, Catherine McCormack, Elizabeth Hurley, Josh Lucas, Sarah Polley, Vinessa Shaw, Ulrich Thomsen, Anders Berthelsen, Katrin Cartlidge, Ciaran Hinds

The Weight Of Water is another demonstration - if needed after Strange Days - that Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most assured and ambitious directors working in the US today. And unlike her previous films, this movie has many shades and subtleties - and some great acting - which prove that her range is potentially boundless.

Dramatically, the film - which tells two stories about women in trouble, one set in 1873, the other set in present day - has some problems, most notably that the stories sit uncomfortably together. Despite riveting stretches, it never satisfactorily coheres and that will irk critics who could turn off audiences.

Nevertheless Le Studio Canal Plus has sold it throughout the world - Lions Gate Films picked up US rights at Toronto where it had its world premiere recently - and there is plenty to draw adult audiences to theatres. With a stellar cast, great cinematic flourishes and some haunting thriller passages, it has myriad elements to intrigue them once they're there.

Story one is led by accomplished British actress Catherine McCormack as a photojournalist who embarks on a boating holiday off the coast of New Hampshire with her estranged husband (Penn), his brother (Lucas) and his brother's new girlfriend (Hurley). Her reason for the trip is to visit Smuttynose Island, a remote island famous for the axe murders of two women in 1873.

Cut to story two, which patches together the circumstances surrounding those two murders. The wonderful Sarah Polley gives the film's standout performance as a Norwegian immigrant woman trapped on the island in a loveless marriage whose world is thrown upside down when her brother and his fiancee arrive in the new world. It is her sister and her sister-in-law who are the victims.

The older story is more effective in conveying the despondency of the woman's situation; the modern story is somewhat underwritten and hindered by another bothersome non-performance by upper-crust English model Elizabeth Hurley.