The Shipping News

The Shipping News


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

It is the atmosphere of eccentricity that lifts Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize novel onto a higher plain. That and her prose style.

Filming such an original work, especially when the main character has the charisma of a letter box, would appear difficult, to say the least. Shooting in Newfoundland, where the weather is extreme, adds to the cinematic excitement of this strange and rather beautiful tale.

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Swedish director Lasse Hallström made his mark in 1985 with My Life As A Dog. Since coming to America, he has demonstrated a particular sensitivity towards actors, an ability to adapt the essence of a novel without losing its spirit and a distinctive visual style in such movies as What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules.

The Shipping News is about roots, continuity, the responsibility of family. Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) has reached the borders of his middle years without challenging expectation. "In me, my father recognised a failed life - his own."

He works as an ink setter for a local newspaper. "I became used to being invisible," he admits. And then Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett) picks him up on the rebound and changes his life.

They marry and have Bunny, a watchful secret child. Quoyle has never known love and so imagines that is what he feels for Petal, a sexual creature who is incapable of commitment to anyone but herself. His father and mother commit suicide, Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) arrives to steal her brother's ashes and Petal is fished out of a river in a Cadillac convertible.

With nothing holding them to America, they drive north to Newfoundland and settle into the salt box building where Agnis spent her childhood. It is held up with steel hawsers against the storms, stands above cliffs where it was dragged over ice decades earlier and has been empty for 44 years. "It would be cheaper if we bought a whole new house on the Riviera," Quoyle says. "I wasn't born on the Riviera," Agnis says.

Quoyle learns about his ancestors, who were pirates and wreckers, gets a job as a reporter on the local rag and meets Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore) who teaches the children at the school. Bunny finds out that she has second sight. "The house is sad," she says. "We should let it loose." Eventually, it lets itself loose - "I told you so," Bunny says. Surprising revelations emerge, a corpse resurrects and Quoyle discovers "a broken man can heal".

The magic that Bunny feels, which can be dark with the stain of history, infuses into the body of the film. Quoyle has always felt that he was born into the wrong family and yet slowly fits back into this place where his father came from. Spacey gives a remarkable performance, which has been criticised for being too actorish, and yet manages to make a dull man interesting, without falling back on self-pity.

Dench is transformed with a spiky haircut and a tough accent into a strong-willed woman, who despises nostalgia for its lies. Blanchett eats Petal for breakfast and swears it's the best meal she's ever had, while Moore carries Wavey's secret carefully through a period of reawakening.

Hallström has done justice to Proulx, who returns the compliment: "The virtuoso acting, intelligent attention to detail and the stark and powerful Newfoundland landscape make a brilliant and unusual film that I didn't dream could be made." She's right.

Reviewed on: 20 Jan 2002
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The Shipping News packshot
Kevin Spacey, a social misfit hitting hard times, finds salvation as a journalist in a small town in Newfoundland, Canada.
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Director: Lasse Hallström

Writer: Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by E. Annie Proulx

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Pete Postlethwaite, Rhys Ifans, Gordon Pinsent, Scott Glenn, Jason Behr

Year: 2001

Runtime: 117 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US/Canada,


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