The Shipping News
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

When Lasse Hallström’s debut picture My Life as a Dog swept the art-theater circuit, it was a cinch to predict that Mr. Hallström would move on to bigger budgets. At the age when Hollywood’s newcomers are primarily into hi-tech thrillers or bathroom comedy, Mr. Hallström’s gift of crafting a tearjerker that keeps the viewer on the edge of the saccharine bowl without letting him fall in could not be ignored.

Judging by the chorus of praise for Mr. Hallström’s latest works, he succeeded in mastering big budgets and star-studded casts. Not to this reviewer; I found both Cider House Rules and Chocolat, to name his two biggest hits to date, exceedingly manipulative and so sugary as to carry a health warning for diabetics. So the only reason to feel mildly optimistic in approaching his latest opus, The Shipping News, was E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer-winning novel, a sprawling epic set in the unforgiving northern climes of Newfoundland – a welcome contrast with, for example, John Irving’s moralistic melodrama Cider House Rules.

The plot is not complicated: Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) is an inksetter at a Poughkeepsee newspaper, a total nebbish and a put-upon husband. Four events befall him in quick sequence: his wife runs out on him; she then dies in a car accident, leaving him to care for their six-year-old daughter; then his parents die in a double suicide; and finally his Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) shows up to collect their ashes and ends up taking Quoyle and his daughter back to his roots – a tiny fishing village in northernmost Newfoundland – to put his life back together. Now, that’s a lot of machinery for a plot to digest, and it sets up high expectations that are easier to meet in a novel, but in a film, with its two-(or three)-hour-limit, such an eventful opening creates a credibility problem – how far from reality is the director going to stray?

Once on the island, Quoyle has to change to survive – radically. This is not a place for milquetoasts who allow their women to ride roughshod all over them. Quoyle has to become a Man. But how? In the novel, Proulx had him achieve manhood in the most basic way – through fighting the elements. The creaking old house he inherits from his parents is barely livable, and many a page of the novel are dedicated to Quoyle’s Robinson-Crusoe-like attempts to create a habitat for himself and his daughter. In the movie, it all happens like magic – a friendly carpenter shows up, and bingo! A coffee pot is perking in a quasi-Martha-Stewart kitchen. (It doesn’t hurt that his Aunt Agnis happens to be an upholsterer and thus knows about home comforts.)

Instead of having Quoyle fight icy storms with a hammer and nails in his hands, Hallström and his screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs have him walk into a local newspaper office and (not without capitalizing on his name, well-known around these parts) be hired as a reporter. So, instead of focusing on the transformation of a flabby suburbanite into a metaphorical firefighter in the post-9/11-mode, they chose to play to the feminist gallery: now the center is taken by the Birth of a Writer out of an ugly duckling of a humble inksetter. Bad timing, I say. Definitely pre-9/11 thinking. Will hurt at the Oscars. But who knew? I wonder if anyone at Miramax suggested to reshoot a few scenes…

Alas, the casting of Quoyle seems as misconceived as the choice of his path to Manhood. Kevin Spacey has put in fine performances elsewhere – but here he is strictly a one-trick pony. You never know whether to place the blame with the director or with the actor, but he never really gets over the sarcastic urbane persona of his previous characters. Here, he opens up with a Kick Me face and, despite many opportunities provided by the plot, he never shakes it off. It is especially striking because he is surrounded by a strong supporting ensemble. Here, just like in a book, the delights are in the details: Dame Judi Dench is predictably indomitable as the upholstering Aunt Agnis; Pete Postlethwaite is once again a sometimes unpleasant but ultimately reliable sort as the newspaper’s managing editor; but who knew that the cowboy Scott Glenn could be such a wonderfully crusty old guy as the newspaper owner? And that Cate Blanchett, the delicate Australian import who showed some steel as Elizabeth I, could be such a wild, colorful tramp as Quoyle’s first wife Petal Bear? Young Welsh actor Rhys Ifans exudes good-naturedness and intelligence as Nutbeem, Quoyle’s co-worker. Even Julianne Moore who has been somewhat annoying recently is doing fine as an earnest-but-playful widow named Wavey with a dark secret of her own (on the island, they all do, Quoyle’s ancestors included – that comes with the genre). Wavey just happens to have a cute mildly retarded son, a dead ringer for Harry Potter, and the same age as Quoyle’s daughter – way too convenient, but on an island this small, choices are limited, and you don’t get Healing and Redemption outside a nice two-parent family. Even the lesbian Aunt Agnis is ensconced in a perfect relationship that would send anyone to Vermont for a marriage license. Among these performances, Spacey is a big blank cliché of a Thirtysomethinger – only twenty years too late.

The supporting ensemble is well matched by the surroundings. The camera work by Oliver Stapleton, helped by Christopher Young’s dramatic score, delivers epic-scaled tableaux that make for an extraordinary Come to Newfoundland postcard – both gorgeous and scary as hell; at the same time this handsome ruggedness somehow prevents Hallström from slipping into the unbearable sweetness of his recent films. I hate to bring up ethnicity, but is it possible that Hallstrom’s Nordic extraction helps here?

Besides a major miscalculation of casting of Spacey as Quoyle, there are minor ones: why did they have to mention that Petal Bear sold her daughter to an adopting agency for $6,000 before she died? So that we don’t get too charmed by Blanchett’s character’s sluttiness? Then there’s an episode when the islanders in a drunken fit destroy Nutbeem’s boat that suggests the dark side of the warm communal spirit – no one gets off the island lightly, it seems to say. Such ambiguities are too much for a Major Hollywood Picture about Healing and Redemption to tackle. But with its epic scale, brisk pacing, and clever dialogue, The Shipping News roars along with the power and the polish that mark it as a surefire Oscar Contender.

A little too slick for this reviewer, perhaps. There is a moment when Quoyle marches off triumphantly out of his editor’s office, and his three coworkers tilt their heads in surprise as they watch him leave. Their heads are tilted at the same angle, and the three faces divide the screen evenly. Not to suggest that the director had to work hard to achieve this symmetry; most likely, in a big Hollywood production such things happen by rote. It’s too bad, because some viewers enjoy a tad of spontaneity here and there; but for that, one has to go elsewhere.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Miramax Films
Movie Web site: The Shipping News



photos: © 2001 Miramax Films. All rights reserved.