The Shipping News
review by KJ Doughton, 25 December
The cutting, frosty bleakness of
Newfoundland is the true star of The
Shipping News. You
can feel the ache of punishing wind and snow, in the film’s
opening image of a weathered, knotted rope surrounded by the
bleakest landscape this side of Fargo.
Not since that 1996 Coen Brothers classic has a movie’s
vivid depiction of the elements been so engulfing.
In fact, you might find yourself reaching for a scarf and
mittens, or trading in that Coke for a steaming cup of mocha to ward
off The Shipping News’
Following its opening whiteout, The Shipping News warms up a bit.
Momentarily abandoning his film’s unsparing landscapes,
director Lasse Hallstrom blasts us into the new millenium with a
startling special effects scene.
The image of a child’s delicate, softly rounded facial
features slowly takes on the lines, crinkles, and weathered
imperfections of middle age. Suddenly, it’s the matured mug of
Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), whose response to the challenges of time is
to hide passively from life’s stressors in the safe, risk-free
offices of The Poughkeepsie News, where he works as a print setter.
Despite such self-imposed
isolation, he’s blindsided one day by a true force of nature.
She’s a free-spirited alarm saleswoman named Petal, who
joins him for coffee, and maybe something more. "It’s
8:05," she observes, eyeing her watch. "I think I’m
gonna screw you by ten." A
real subtle gal, this Petal, who makes good on her prediction.
Following a fierce bout of coitus, she leaves the love-struck
Quoyle in bed to retrieve a snack from the refrigerator.
"I’m always hungry after I get laid," she
observes with a typical lack of restraint. "I guess I burn off
too many calories."
Petal is the trailer-bred female
equivalent of Kid Rock, with her shocking-pink hair and filthy
sailor’s mouth, but she lights a fire of lust beneath Quoyle’s
introverted, tailor’s dummy. He’s hooked on her crass, bar maid charm.
A few years go by, and the couple find themselves married
with a young daughter in tow. However, it’s Quoyle who inherits most of the parenting
while Petal drags home stray men from the local bars. Like Billy Bob Thornton’s inert title character in The
Man Who Wasn’t There, Quoyle is such a browbeaten, indifferent
doormat that he merely shrugs off her one-night stands.
"Has your friend left yet?" he asks, after Petal
has booted some biker out of her crowded bed.
Eventually, Petal’s wild life
catches up with her. A patrol cop asks Quoyle to identify her
drowned remains, after a car is dredged from the Atlantic’s watery
apparently got in a wreck," the officer tells Quoyle. "She
was with a gentleman friend."
This news isn’t surprising. However, the messenger’s
other news – that Petal had attempted to sell their six-year old
daughter to a black market adoption agency – is difficult for even
her cuckolded widower to swallow.
Misfortune continues to plague
Quoyle. His father
leaves a telephone message that nonchalantly announces his plans to
"end it all for your mother and I."
It would seem that Quoyle now has three
funerals to attend.
These opening passages of doom and
gloom make it clear that The
Shipping News is no walk in the park.
However, a ray of faith and optimism soon emerges in the form
of Quoyle’s Aunt Agniss, played with an air of spirited
determination by Judi Dench. Agniss is a tough, resilient resident
of Newfoundland who visits her East Coast nephew to pay respect to
Quoyle’s deceased dad. However,
her steely, determined stare suggests that there’s something more
pressing on the agenda. Later,
when the old gal defiantly desecrates the cremated remains in a
scene that one-ups the old expression "I spit on your
grave," you know that all was not well in this relationship.
In dire need of an emotional
tune-up and energized by Agniss’ presence, Quoyle and his daughter
agree to return with her to his Newfoundland home country.
Upon their arrival, however, this untamed new terrain
startles the newcomers. "I
don’t understand," Quoyle remarks of their new stomping
grounds. "It’s May and there’s so much snow."
Equally unsettling is the rickety, antiquated family home, a
leaky assemblage of weathered wood anchored together by creaking
cables onto a lonely coastal point.
As Quoyle and his daughter move in, the house begins to give
off some creepy, Sixth-Sense-style
vibes. Are there some
ancestral skeletons lurking about in the abode’s many cluttered
Shipping News moves at a leisurely pace, allowing its characters
room to breathe even as past mysteries creep up on them.
Quoyle finds work at The
Gammy Bird, a behind-the-times newspaper with as many
typewriters as computers. Its
editor, Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), is a stern, seen-it-all cuss who
would rather be out fishing the saltwater than be cooped up in a
newsroom. Thus, it’s
up to The Gammy Bird’s
roost of reporters, including Pete Postlewaite and Rhys Ifans, to
run the show. Postlewaite
is a particular standout, as a wannabe editor who lounges in
Buggit’s office while his boss isn’t around.
Harry Potter introducing himself to the supernatural staff and
students at Hogwart, Quoyle’s presence raises eyebrows. The
utterance of his family name has heads turning. "So,"
questions Buggit during their first word exchange, like a veteran
pirate interrogating an apprentice. "You’re a Quoyle,
pirates play a role in one of many family secrets that are unveiled
during the man’s long-delayed journey of discovery.
process of untangling such a messy web of history, perhaps Quoyle
can rid his home of the spectral old men and white dogs that torment
his daughter’s restless nights.
His search for a day care provider brings him to Wavey, a
redheaded teacher who harbors a few secrets of her own.
The Shipping News watches as the pieces of Quoyle’s
past and present begin fitting into place, affording this damaged
man a new lease on life.
Hallstrom, whose past work includes What’s
Eating Gilbert Grape, The
Cider House Rules, and the underrated Once
Around, would seem a natural choice to direct the difficult
material from E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
The Swedish filmmaker has made it his mission to expose the
universal, human hunger for family support and community acceptance.
Meanwhile, he’s never afraid to explore the frayed ends of
household dysfunction, and examine one’s need to escape such an
esteem-smashing web. Hallstrom lends a light touch to what could
have been an overwrought, weighty affair.
He catches the busy-yet-personable vibe of The
Shipping News’ tough, tightly knit coastal community, with
scenes of locals feasting on "seal flipper pie", or
journalists prioritizing their coverage. "We need a car
wreck," enthuses a Gammy
Bird reporter. "A good wreck always sells papers!"
the film’s casting is more questionable.
Spacey is far too charismatic a presence to play the aloof,
beaten-down Quoyle, a frail cinder of a man whose persona might be
better represented by Anthony Edwards, John C. Reilly, or Billy Bob
Thornton. As is stands,
Spacey does a game job, but I had to push back his shrewd, laconic
persona. After watching
this master thespian pull off such meaty roles as Keyzer Soza and
Lester Burnham - sneaky anarchists with attitude to burn – his
understated turn here was a bit like seeing Tina Turner impersonate
The Shipping News boasts some terrific supporting work by Julianne
Moore, who mothers a disabled child and knows a thing or two about
alienation. When Quoyle
asks Wavey if she notices anything strange about his frightened,
sensitive daughter, her response is both wise and sad.
"That little girl is the only friend my son ever
had," she responds. "So she’s strange. You bet."
movie’s real standout, however, is Judi Dench. Her Aunt Agniss is
a defiantly dignified soul who has been through Hell and come out
bruised, but not beaten. Dench
has few lines in the film, but when Hallstrom follows her with his
camera, she conveys the history of a once-restless survivor making
peace with a rocky past. She’s
the heart of The Shipping News, and her commanding presence makes this imperfect
northern adventure worth the trip.
Robert Nelson Jacobs
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
or adult guardian.