Adapted from Anita Shreve's best-selling literary novel, Kathryn Bigelow's film combines a historical murder mystery based on a real-life case and a portrait of a disintegrating marriage that recalls Roman Polanski's KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962). Photojournalist Jean Janes (Catherine McCormack), married to alcoholic Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Thomas (Sean Penn), is assigned to revisit a sensational 1873 murder case. The killings took place on the now-uninhabited and nearly inaccessible Smuttynose Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, but Jean's brother-in-law, Rich (Josh Lucas), has a boat, so Jean and Thomas decide to combine business with pleasure and spend several days sailing with Rich, who brings along his sexy new girlfriend, literary groupie Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley). Alcohol flows freely, Thomas and his brother squabble, and Jean's suspicions are aroused when she learns that Thomas knows Adaline — in fact, he introduced her to Rich. Jean buries herself in the story of the Smuttynose murders: Two Norwegian immigrants, sisters-in-law Anethe and Karen Christensen (Vinessa Shaw, Katrin Cartlidge) were strangled and bludgeoned to death with an ax, while Karen's married sister, Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley), escaped. She was found hiding beneath a rocky outcropping the following day, when her brother, Evan Christensen (Anders W. Berthelsen), and husband, John Hontvert (Ulrich Thomsen), returned home. Maren accused German fisherman Louis Wagner (Ciaren Hinds), who was hanged. Jean suspects a miscarriage of justice, and as the disturbing case takes hold of her imagination she becomes convinced that Thomas and Adaline are having an affair. Shot in and around Halifax, Nova Scotia, the film's landscape is convincingly grim, but the parallel story structure seems artificial. It's clear early on where each tale is going (if not the specifically, then in broad outline), and since the circumstances that forge Maren's and Jean's unhappy marriages are so different and specific to their times, it's hard to justify the cross-cutting of their stories. If both stories were equally compelling that might not be a problem, but the modern-day characters are nowhere near as vivid as the 19th-century ones. Penn, in particular, is so subdued he's hardly there, while Hurley's seductive, hyper-articulate Adaline is actually ludicrous, sucking suggestively on ice cubes and reciting poetry like a phone-sex operator pretending to be a book-reading babe. The film belongs to Polley, whose performance is a marvel of cumulative minutia — a sharp word, a sullen glance, a ferocious attack on the ice covering the well; Maren is like a seething volcano made flesh, taking uneasy refuge from her troubled thoughts in the harsh grind of a fishwife's daily routine.