The Shipping News

          While he made his mark with the original MY LIFE AS A DOG,
  Swedish-born filmmaker Lasse Hallström has carved a niche in the USA
  with feature adaptations of novels that center on outsiders who eventually
  are embraced by the world in which they live. In his collaborations with
  the original fiction writer (
WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, THE CIDER
    HOUSE RULES
), Hallström has produced end results that met with
  generally good notices, a healthy box office and recognition in the form
  of Oscar nominations. In 2000, he and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs
  collaborated on adapting Joanne Harris' novel
CHOCOLAT. While reviewers
  were divided over its merits (I happened to be in the minority that thought
  it among the year's best films), that film also yielded good financial
  returns and earned several Academy Award nominations. So when it was
  announced that he and Jacobs would reteam to bring E. Annie Proulx's
  Pulitzer Prize-winning novel
THE SHIPPING NEWS to movie screens,
  hopes were raised. While I wish I could say that what the movie makers
  achieved was among the top films of 2001, I simply can't. Although there
  are admirable facets to this fastidious adaptation, the various individual
  achievements don't quite coalesce. (It may not have helped that the
  releasing studio - Miramax - continued to tinker with the film until the
  eleventh hour.)

          Proulx's book is perhaps the major problem, as it was more of a
  character study than a dramatic page-turner. Since the book was first
  published in 1993, there have been numerous attempts to bring it to
  the screen (at various times people as diverse as John Travolta and Billy
  Bob Thornton have been attached to it). Proulx first made her mark as
  a short story writer and there is something of an episodic quality to
  
THE SHIPPING NEWSThe Shipping News - undoubtedly that was the
  appeal for movie makers - but the theme of redemption and reawakening
  is an internal one that is not easily dramatized. Like so many other
  examples of literature, this proved to be the undoing for Robert Nelson
  Jacobs' adaptation. He certainly made a yeoman effort, but the end result
  lags because the main character Quoyle - a lumpen, schlub in the novel -
  undergoes an internal transformation. Perhaps it may have worked had
  another actor played the part (someone like John Goodman or Philip
  Seymour Hoffman) but Hallström miscast two-time Oscar winner Kevin
  Spacey in the part. Spacey has built his career portraying off-center,
  slightly unhinged character roles. In
THE SHIPPING NEWS, he opts
  to underplay the part so much, he barely registers.

          The plot, such as it is, revolves around Quoyle, an underachiever
  who is content to play doormat to a harridan of a wife. He also has
  to face a Job-like string of calamities ranging from his parents' suicides
  to an accident involving his wife. When his aunt arrives, she briskly
  whisks him off to the family homestead in rural Newfoundland, where
  Quoyle gradually "finds himself," in part by confronting the sins of his
  ancestors.

          Hallström has cast most of the rest of the roles with intriguing
  choices. Judi Dench does her usual fine work as Quoyle's no-nonsense
  aunt Agnis Hamm (Proulx's characters all have rather cutesy names),
  and there's fine support from Scott Glenn as local newspaper publisher
  Jack Buggit who'd rather be fishing, Pete Postlethwaite as the paper's
  grudge-holding managing editor Tert Card. Gordon Pinsent as reporter
  Billy Pretty, and Jason Behr as Buggit's son Dennis, a carpenter who
  longs to be a fisherman.

          Unfortunately, the other major female characters don't come off
  very well. Cate Blanchett tears into her brief role as Petal Bear, the
  slattern who seduces and marries Quoyle only to bring him heartbreak.
  Where Spacey barely inhabits the screen, Blanchett overcompensates
  by filling it to excess. It's a hammy, over-the-top turn by this seemingly
  ubiquitous actress. Julianne Moore as Wavey Prowse, a single woman
  drawn to Quoyle, is more problematic. She tries hard and has a few
  moments, but some spark is missing from her portrayal. Like Spacey,
  Moore has excelled in playing roles that require her to be on the edge.
  Cast as a relatively normal person, she appears to be phoning in her
  work. It also doesn't help that she and Spacey share no palpable
  chemistry, rendering their love scenes flat and unexciting.

          What is right about the film, though, is Oliver Stapleton's superb
  cinematography. Shooting on location in Newfoundland, Stapleton captures
  the windswept beauty of the land and sea and makes nature as much of
  a character in the film as it should be. Christopher Young's Celtic-influenced
  score is also on target. On the whole, though,
THE SHIPPING NEWS
  is a disappointment.

                  
                  Rating:                C
                  MPAA Rating:        R
                  Running time:       111 mins.
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.