The Shipping News
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, Rhys Ivans, Scott Glenn, Pete Posthelwaite, and Cate Blanchett
Director:

Lasse Hallström

Writing credits: Robert Nelson Jacobs
Distributor: Miramax Films
Rated: R for some language, sexuality and disturbing images
Official Site: Click Here
IMDB Page: Click Here
  (USA 2001)

Every time the lights go down in a movie theatre, and projected light hits that enormous screen, there's potential. Potential that what you're about to witness will, in some way, be transformative. Breathtaking. An illumination of Man's struggles and joys, or more importantly, an illumination of your own. Something special.

We can all name those instances where a film has touched our lives; CozziFanTutti and Cinemarati have recently made lists of just such events. But once you've had a few of these private moments of transformation in a movie theatre, you begin to crave them. You begin to hope that each time the lights go down, it will be there -- a Freshly Minted Masterpiece.

If you recognize yourself in the description above, you've probably had a pretty disappointing time of late. After the bumper crop of great films in 1999 (American Beauty, The Matrix, Magnolia, Buena Vista Social Club, Being John Malkovich, All About My Mother, The Insider, Election, Run Lola Run, and The Red Violin, to name just a few), the intervening two years has seemed like an arid cinematic drought. Even among current releases, the space between greats like Memento and Fellowship of the Ring seems to get longer. And longer. And longer.

But an idea struck me receently watching THE SHIPPING NEWS, the long-awaited adaptation of E. Annie Proulx's award-winning novel and Kevin Spacey's latest foray into wounded man/child roles. The idea? Maybe it's not fair to ask that big, enormous movie screen for a home run everytime. Sometimes, we should just grateful for the ground rule double.

Certainly, there's a lot to enjoy in THE SHIPPING NEWS. Begin with Proulx's marvelous tale of physical toughness and spiritual rebirth in the arctic majesty of Newfoundland. The tale of a broken widower named Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) is so perfectly arc-like that it nearly screams for cinematic treatment. After a disastrous first marriage leaves Quoyle nearly immobile, an unlikely savoir shows up on his doorstep: aunt Agnis (Judi Dench), a gruffly amenable soul who takes him and his young daughter to start over in Newfoundland, where the Quoyles lived for generations. Moving into the old ramshackle homestead -- on the verge of collapse with every gust of wind -- Quoyle finds both a job covering shipping news at a local paper and a new romantic interest, Wavey (Julianne Moore), who is also a single parent with a bleak past.

Such ripe emotional fodder seems a perfect match for director Lasse Hallström, who mined similar tales of overemotional simple folk in The Cider House Rules. He has enlisted his Chocolat screenwriter, Robert Nelson Jacobs, and a cast of impressive strength: in addition to Spacey, Dench, and Moore, the cast includes the welcome return of Pete Posthelwaite (In The Name Of The Father) alongside no less than Cate Blanchett (Bandits, Elizabeth) and Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff). Factor in the harsh, magnificent landscape of Newfoundland's mountains, oceans, snow and sun, and this is a home run for sure, right?

Well, not exactly. Try as it might, THE SHIPPING NEWS never comes together as it should. It's an enjoyable enough ride, but Quoyle's journey seems slightly beyond the viewer's reach...things that should fully engage our attention end up falling short dramatically. A near-drowning comes and goes with little focus; a girl's frequent supernatural sightings are built up throughout the film, only to end quickly and not fully explored. The loftier, delicate issues of spirituality, family, and self-reliance are used like blunt instruments to batter the film into Oscar-worthy shape...often at the expense of Proulx's quietly grand narrative.

Still, one cannot discount the evident craft and talent that went into the film's execution. Watching Spacey and Dench is a heavenly experience in any film, and their slow-boiling familial bond is a thing of beauty. The romance between Spacey and Moore, while never surprising, builds so satisfyingly that one can forgive Hallström and Jacobs for their unoriginality. Certainly, the energy that Glenn, Posthelwaite, and Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill) bring to the newspaper office scenes more than makes up for the humdrum dialogue and stilted camerawork. And, of course, if one tires of the less-than-splendid storytelling, there's always Oliver Stapleton's expansive cinematography and Andrew Mondshein's magnificent editing to keep you engaged.

The experience of THE SHIPPING NEWS is one of mild satisfaction, a no-fuss, no-bother kind of moviegoing. Uninspired? Sure. A lesser treatment than Proulx's book deserves?  Certainly. A waste of your time?  That's going too far. It may not be the Freshly Minted Masterpiece, but it isn't half bad, either.

And that, in a nutshell, is the dilemma. Is this middling, better-than-average movie worth paying the ever-increasing ticket prices at your local megaplex, plus popcorn and a babysitter? It probably depends on how much you're willing to forgive. If it catches you in the right frame of mind, Hallström's ode to simple life can be a restorative tonic. It certainly caught me on a good day.

But a film that depends upon a forgiving audience for its success is in precarious shape. Like the Quoyle family house in the film, tenuously tethered to the craggy cliffs of Newfoundland, it needs to balance its star power, talent, and energy to make up for its faults.

- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2001 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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