The Shipping News
review by KJ Doughton, 25 December 2001

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’ nose-nipping chills.

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 depths.  "They 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 closets?

The 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. 

Like 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, eh?"  Indeed, pirates play a role in one of many family secrets that are unveiled during the man’s long-delayed journey of discovery. 

In the 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.

Lasse 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!"

However, 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 a nun.

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."

The 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. 

Directed by:
Lasse Hallstrom

Kevin Spacey
Judi Dench
Kate Blanchett
Julianne Moore
Scott Glenn

Written by:
Robert Nelson Jacobs

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
acompanying parent
or adult guardian.




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