The Big Picture: The Shipping News
I've got that sinking feeling
01 March 2002
In The Shipping News Kevin Spacey gives a performance that sinks from downbeat to almost deadbeat. He plays a sad sack named Quoyle with a shuffling gait and a thin, timorous voice so self-conscious that you may wonder what's happened to his acting. He tried the same boo-hoo mode in last year's unspeakable Pay It Forward, and it didn't work then, either. Is this the same man whose silken menace lit up the screen a few years ago in Seven and LA Confidential? Yes, I'm afraid it is, and where he once jangled our nerves, at present he just grates on them.
It doesn't help that the movie he's fronting is directed by Lasse Hallström, Miramax Studio's favourite translator of tasteful literary sensations. Following The Cider House Rules and Chocolat (the saccharine is still repeating on me), Hallström and his writer, Robert Nelson Jacobs, have taken a well-liked book – here the prize-winning novel by E Annie Proulx – assembled one of those "quality" international casts and worked out the quickest route possible via Self-Discovery to the terminus marked Personal Redemption. They serve up the cinematic equivalent of comfort food: stodgy, unadventurous and not that good for you.
The flurry of melodrama in the first 15 minutes would be fuel enough for a whole movie in itself. Our glum hero Quoyle meets and marries a hot-eyed vamp named Petal (Cate Blanchett). Having given him the runaround for a few years, she abandons him altogether and is later found dead in a car accident. She had just tried to sell their young daughter to an adoption agency, so there's a feeling she's been served right. Next thing you know, Quoyle's awful father has snuffed it, too, but not before we see him in flashback giving his son a traumatic swimming lesson – that is, pitching him into the sea and watching the poor kid gargle the salt. "I'm not much of a water person," Quoyle bleats, still prey to nightmares of drowning years later.
Why, then, does he allow himself and his daughter to be taken by his tough old aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) to the fishing port Killick-Claw on the windswept coast of Newfoundland, where men and their boats are frequently lost beneath the waves? Good question, and not one the film has an answer to, being less concerned with plausibility than accumulating a bleakly portentous atmosphere in which Quoyle can retrace his roots – his ancestors hail from this remote territory. Everything here feels pregnant with significance, even down to the name: "Quoyle" means a coil of rope, whose later imagery suggests both a loss of moorings and the ties that bind family together. The wooden house that Aunt Agnis takes them back to has a history of being dragged bodily across the ice by the hardy breed of Quoyles before them. (This Fitzcarraldo sequence was also revisited in last year's The Claim).
What with the scouring winds and the unyielding landscape, it's pretty grim up north, though the climate is offset by the warmth and good humour of the locals – yes, we really are in a Lasse Hallström movie – most of whom have "interesting" names to match. Like Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), the editor of local rag "The Gammy Bird", who gives Quoyle a job covering the shipping news and (oh irony!) car-wreck stories; like the officious managing editor Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite), eccentric expat Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans) and local sage Billy Pretty (Gordon Pinsent), who teaches Quoyle to think in newspaper headlines. And what better tonic to the broken-spirited Quoyle than the attentions of a comely single mother rejoicing under the name Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore). Of course it's just darling that Wavey's damaged son is befriended by Quoyle's daughter Bunny, despite her pronounced contempt for other kids as "boring".
But before romance can be allowed to bloom, we have to endure some extensive rattling of family closets and ponder the skeletons tumbling therefrom. Quoyle always seems to be waking sweatily from a nightmare, either of his near-drowning or a vague apprehension that his forbears were "pirates". Late in the film he finds an old hermit cousin living down by the bay – as you do – who just happens to impart to him an infamous tale of abuse suffered by old Agnis. Other secrets are gradually spilt, the gravity of which Hallström signals with a piercing blast of instrumental folk music. By the end I would happily have stuffed socks down the throat of the Celtic piper, whose themes are much too insistent in their eagerness to haunt. The score goes hand-in-hand with the film's romantic conception of these rugged island folk, supposedly blessed with integrity and wit merely because they have dirt under their fingernails, chop their own wood and talk in a hard-bitten, quasi-Irish brogue.
Typical Hollywood baloney, I'm afraid, a guilty gesture of solidarity from people who'd rather die than eat "seal-flipper pie" and brave the everyday torment of freezing gales. A certain physiological ignorance mixes with the implausibility. Though unable to swim, Quoyle ventures out in his tiny sail boat, which founders and tips him into the sea: somehow, he survives its icy temperature for six hours, to be eventually rescued by a passing Buggit. Perhaps these contrivances wouldn't matter if we could make an emotional connection with one of the characters, yet none of them seems to exist beyond an exotic name. Spacey has been allowed far too much rope by Lasse Hallström, and never seems to find any life in the throttled husk he plays. You realise that Petal did the right thing in scarpering at the start – Quoyle cures himself, but he doesn't, as it were, get any better.
A slow news day on craggy island
The bleached images of wintry Newfoundland are spot on, but despite dark secrets, incest and death, this version of Proulx's novel lacks lustre
Philip French Observer
Sunday March 3, 2002
The Shipping News (117 mins, 15) Directed by Lasse Hallström; starring Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, Scott Glenn
Until E. Annie Proulx's novel, The Shipping News, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994, followed by some well-publicised attempts to film it, Newfoundland hadn't impinged much on the Western literary mind. Larger than Scotland but with a population not much bigger than Edinburgh's, this craggy, triangular island wedged in the Gulf of St Lawrence hasn't figured much in the movies either, though there used to be a cinema in Bristol named after Cabot, the explorer who discovered it.
I can only think of an old National Film Board of Canada documentary celebrating the local industries (fishing, lumber, iron ore) and an intriguing conspiracy thriller called Secret Nation, about a doctoral student in political science returning from Montreal to her native St John's, Newfoundland, to probe the mysterious circumstances in which the semi-autonomous island became the tenth province of Canada in 1949.
Lasse Hallström's movie of The Shipping News is also about someone returning to his roots in Newfoundland, though a person of somewhat lesser intelligence and uncertain aim. As created by Proulx, Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) is one of the saddest losers in literature. He's a physically ungainly, overweight loner, raised by an oppressive father, terrified of water, incapable of keeping a job, and taken advantage of by a terrible, double-timing floozy (Cate Blanchett), who bears him two children. In the adaptation by Robert Nelson Jacobs (who also scripted Hall ström's Chocolat ), Quoyle is more of a Candide figure, naïve, pathetic, but not stupid. As played by Spacey, a charismatic actor, he's given to putting on brave faces like a movie star reacting to being a runner-up on Oscar night.
After the suicide of his parents and the bizarre death of his wife, Quoyle is persuaded by his tough aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) to accompany her to the old family home in a remote corner of Newfoundland to start a new life with the one daughter, Bunny, the film accords him. The snow-covered, sea-lashed island is captured in all its wintry inhospitability by British cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. His bleached images are gauged to make the audience shiver. But the movie doesn't find any stylistic equivalent to Proulx's clipped, laconic, folksy prose. Quoyle, apparently, is a dialect word for a knot, and most of her brief chapters have amusing epigraphs from The Ashley Book of Knots, a device the film might usefully have borrowed.
The most successful parts of a curiously dull film are the amusing scenes in the office of the Gammy Bird, the small-town newspaper where the apparently hopeless Quoyle finds a successful niche as a reporter, covering car crashes and shipping news. The owner-editor (Scott Glenn) is more often out at sea fishing than at his desk, and Quoyle's three fellow employees are the surly, self-important managing editor (Pete Postlethwaite), the wily old-timer who does home news (Gordon Pinsent) and a middle-class Englishman (Rhys Ifans) stranded in Newfoundland.
They are all excellent and anyone who has had to trawl desperately for news where nothing much happens will recognise how accurate it is. I speak as someone who spent several winter months as second-in-command of the Bristol Evening Post 's two-man Weston-super-Mare bureau, then went straight on to produce the now-defunct Calling Newfoundland, a weekly BBC programme for which I had to find three items for every edition with some connection to the island, however tenuous.
The rest of the picture is a good deal less successful. Hallström is attracted to quirky families, usually in rural settings (most successfully in My Life as a Dog), and from time to time most directors are drawn to tales of hardy (and Hardyesque) folk in remote places, living off the land, battling with the elements, adhering to traditional ways, in touch with primitive forces. One thinks of John Sayles's excursion to Western Ireland, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Jocelyn Moorhouse's film of another Pulitzer Prize novel, A Thousand Acres. As always, incest, murder, superstition and family secrets rear up and the genre - made as if Cold Comfort Farm had never been written - might be called 'Snow Falling on Clichés'.
Further insisting on the edge-of-the-world quality, stressing that we're encountering authentic experience denied to sophisticated city folk, is the Celtic music, all pipes, harps and percussion. Hallström compounds and further sentimentalises this by playing up the colourful eccentricity of all concerned - the journalists, Aunt Agnis, weird Cousin Nolan lurking in the boathouse, the waif called Wavey (Julianne Moore) with the retarded son, who brings love to Quoyle. They're competing to be written up as 'The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met' for Reader's Digest.
The Express March 1, 2002
SECTION: FEATURES; Pg. 45
HEADLINE: THE WEEKEND EDITED BY TINU MAJEKODUNMI - LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE
BYLINE: ALLAN HUNTER
BODY: THE SHIPPING NEWS
Every actor is stuck with an image. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't going to pop up sipping tea in the next Merchant-Ivory production and Kate Winslet won't be blasting sneaky alien invaders to smithereens in the Men In Black sequel. It is the way of the world, which is why it comes as something of a surprise to find Kevin Spacey cast in the lead role of Quoyle in THE SHIPPING NEWS.
Quoyle is a big, wounded teddy bear of a man, docile and downtrodden. He has suffered cruelly at the hands of those who should have cared for him most, including a bullying father and a heartless hussy of a wife.
Imagine John Goodman at his most vulnerable and you have the right image. Spacey is a two-time Oscar winner and a mighty fine actor, but he is smart as a fox; sly, knowing and perfectly capable of looking after his own interests. Even his losers have a flinty edge of defiance or malice.
Naturally, Spacey works hard to make the character his own.
He slows his speech, shuffles and shambles, concealing his doughy frame in woolly jumpers and shapeless anoraks and using his body language to suggest the defensive walls that Quoyle has built around himself. In many ways it is an admirable performance and one that earned Spacey a Best Actor Bafta nomination, but it is still a performance in which you can see the wheels turning and the effort it involves.
Directed by Chocolat's Lasse Hallstrom this is a lyrical, overly reverent adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning E Annie Proulx novel about the healing power of love and the comforting sense of community we are all seeking. Quoyle and his daughter are taught to fear life and eventually take refuge from the world in a battered family home in wintry Newfoundland. He finds work as a reporter on the local paper, meets colleagues, makes friends and gradually learns that fear can be overcome. Like Juliette Binoche's subversive chocolatier, he encounters a backwater filled with eccentric characters and deep-hidden secrets. It is also a place where broken souls can be mended.
In healing himself, he manages to touch the lives of many others, including lonely, embittered widow, Julianne Moore, and his loyal Aunt Agnis, played by Judi Dench who bears a striking, eerie resemblance to the great Katharine Hepburn.
Less syrupy than Chocolat or Hallstrom's adaptation of The Cider House Rules, this has a little more gravitas, even though it ultimately offers just one more variation on his well-worn formula of using picturesque locations and fine ensemble acting to teach meaningful lessons in the art of embracing life. Here, the impressive cast includes Scott Glenn, Pete Postlethwaite, Rhys Ifans, and Cate Blanchett in a brief role as the wild child bride who turns Quoyle's world upside-down before breezing onwards to a tragic destiny. Hallstrom is hampered by good taste and an excessive admiration for his source material, so he tends to view the triumphs and sorrows of his characters through the same detached, stoical gaze, flattening out the drama and squeezing some of the life from the film.
He also has a tendency to use obvious visual metaphors to nudge us in the ribs in case we hadn't twigged that the film is all about rebirth and resurrection.
At a sombre family wake a dead man suddenly returns to life, and later a howling tempest snaps a house from its moorings and consigns it to oblivion, thus clearing the way for Quoyle to enjoy a completely fresh start. By then we have well and truly got the picture.
It is not the great sweeping epic it might have been, but The Shipping News looks beautiful and washes over you in an entirely pleasant manner without piercing the heart or tearing at the soul. It is always aware of where it is heading and it never catches you off guard. Even casting John Goodman in the central role wouldn't have changed that. Still, it is an entirely respectable middle-brow heart-warmer with notable performances from Julianne Moore and especially Judi Dench, who manages to suggest a whole lifetime in just a few telling scenes. We've come to expect nothing less of her.
Thanks to Jan M. and Cindy F.