Perhaps the best thing I can say about The Shipping News is that I was just settling in for another hour when the movie suddenly ended (the same thing happened with Elizabeth from a few years ago). In both cases, I got so engrossed in the presentation of character and setting that I didn’t realize two hours had elapsed. In both cases, the movie ends before the characters and settings are used in a conventional setup-conflict-resolution movie formula. Instead, both movies shun pat Hollywood conflicts and concentrate on really getting to know its people and places.
Some might hate this movie for the exact reasons I mentioned above, complaining about a lack of a clear objective, about aimlessness, or depriving audiences of a sense of resolution. But instead I choose to enjoy The Shipping News for its atmosphere, its sense of place, its characterizations and its acting.
Life before Newfoundland
R for language, sexuality, violence
Based on the best-seller by E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News follows a lonely loser in his journey back to his ancestral home in Newfoundland.
Kevin Spacey plays Quoyle, who is a little smarter and a lot less exciting than Forrest Gump. His sad life is summed up in four shots and three special effects: a single, traumatic moment from childhood morphs into one pointless job after another.
I like Kevin Spacey as much as the next moviegoer, but I also think he is too often overrated. Not so in The Shipping News, where he gives an excellent performance. More often than not, he plays some sly, smirking variation of the same character. Under Hallstrom, he becomes a new person. He dons a Nor’Easter accent and a fragile, simpleton persona, proving to us skeptics that he’s as versatile as people say.
Quoyle finds some meaning when he falls in love with Petal (Cate Blanchett) after three hours and one romp in the sack. But within the film’s first 20 minutes Petal, now his wife, leaves him and their daughter for more invigorating prospects. Soon thereafter, both of Quoyle’s parents die, leaving their suicide message to him on the common answering machine at work.
This densely-packed setup is dizzying and emotionally disorienting. Far too much happens to Quoyle before we even know who he is. In a novel, there is time to introduce the main character. In this film, we need to get to the heart of the story and off to Newfoundland as quickly as possible. I’m not sure this setup couldn’t have just been cut.
Fish out of Water
Quoyle’s aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) comes to town when she learns about his father’s (her brother’s) death. She asks him to return with her to Newfoundland with his daughter, back to where their people are from, back to the ancestral lands. Lacking a spine and a reason to stay, he obliges her.
In Killick-Claw, Quoyle is a fish out of water. He and his daughter aren’t used to life in a small coastal village. There’s apparently no summer, going straight from the foggy season to the frosty season, and everyone wants him to buy a boat (in spite of his insistent fear). The people are strange, the cuisine is even stranger, and making new friends is hard.
Aside from his aunt, there is one person who Quoyle takes a shine to. Wavey (Julianne Moore) can be seen walking the streets alone with her son, who is the same age as Quoyle’s daughter. In this chilly and closed community, these two sets of loners become friends.
Quoyle finds a landlubbing job at the local newspaper. He’d been a press operator, but he gets drafted as a reporter to cover the shipping news: boats in, boats out. Though he’s not a writer, he gives it an honest try.
The Shipping News is a treat for the senses. It’s tempting to say that the cinematography is excellent, although I think it might be hard not to make the lonely houses, rocky points, and foggy seas of Newfoundland look beautiful. And although the music was a little too reminiscent of the melodramatic Irish sounds of Titanic’s score, Christopher Young’s music is subtle and plaintive, a perfect match for the isolated beauty of the landscape.
There are only a few flaws in The Shipping News. As I mentioned earlier, there isn’t much of a payoff at the film’s conclusion. Also, the one or two flashback scenes of violence and rape are gratuitous; the film wouldn’t have suffered had they been cut. But unless this tone-poem style of moviemaking just isn’t your cup of tea, these flaws shouldn’t keep you from The Shipping News. Enjoy.