Film Review: The Shipping News

Spacey & Blanchett team up for something a bit different...

With The Shipping News, director Lasse Hallstrom continues his penchant for bringing popular novels to the big screen. His last two movies were The Cider House Rules and Chocolat; his new picture is based on E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Hallstrom sets himself a real challenge this time as the novel is generally considered to be unfilmable and, in spite of a strong cast and some fine cinematography, the film has an unfinished quality that ultimately disappoints.

Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore in The Shipping NewsKevin Spacey delivers perhaps his most subtle performance to date with his portrayal of Quoyle (pronounced "coil"), a perpetual no-hoper who lacks confidence, self-respect and, among other things, a first name. Quoyle's mundane existence is one day interrupted by the arrival of fireball Petal (Cate Blanchett), who promptly sleeps with him, marries him, gives birth to a daughter and then sleeps with everyone and anyone else - all in ten minutes flat. Little wonder the put-upon Quoyle sports a continually bewildered look as the torrid events of his marriage unfold. Spacey is surprisingly restrained in the role of the humiliated husband, crippled by the naive delusion that his love can put a stop to his wife's two-timing. When Petal's fast and loose ways lead to tragedy and Quoyle's parents unexpectedly commit suicide, he decides to pack up and travel to a remote part of Newfoundland with aunt Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench), who has reached the age, she says, when one feels the need to return to one's roots.

Thus begins Quoyle's journey of discovery - physical and metaphorical - and the remainder of the movie is concerned with its depiction. It's understandable why the book is thought of as impossible to commit to film because the story eschews a typical three-act plot in favour of a very human tale of transformation. Once you've come to terms with the lack of significant action to drive the film forward, you can settle back and enjoy the characters, most of whom are highly watchable. The movie's best scenes by far take place in the local newspaper office where the still-bumbling and mumbling Quoyle somehow manages to secure a job as a reporter, covering - you guessed it - the shipping news. Pete Postlethwaite is decidedly amusing as the conniving, puffed-up managing editor of the paper, while Rhys Ifans is entertaining as the good-natured, upper-middle-class Englishman intent on leaving the village at the earliest opportunity.

The film's greatest strength is also where it falls down - the abundance of interesting characters means that, in most cases, their lives, relationships and motivations are never satisfactorily explored. There are too many unanswered questions, too many briefly sketched encounters that never blossom into relationships, too many beginnings and not enough middle and end bits. Fortunately, for those viewers left intrigued but perplexed by The Shipping News, the deservedly acclaimed book goes a long way to filling in the gaps and diving beneath the surface of the movie.

Sylvia Leatham