The Shipping News
2002, R, 111 min. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Starring Alyssa Gainer, Lauren, Kaitlyn, Scott Glenn, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, Kevin Spacey.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Dec. 28, 2001
The widespread critical enthusiasm for Lasse Hallstrom's heart-tugging oeuvre must royally chap directors like Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, whose films are often tagged as manipulative schmaltz while Hallstrom's no-less-sentimental works are approvingly deemed “large-souled” and “humane.” Might it be that residual Eurocentrism simply confers more slack to guys named Lasse than common domestic Bobs and Steves? Possibly, but The Shipping News also serves as a classic illustration of the virtues that so disarm the notoriously diffident film-scribe community. Adapted from E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 novel, it's an archetypal tale of spiritual rebirth through connection with one's family roots. The central character is Quoyle (Spacey), a shambling, sad-sack printing press operator in Poughkeepsie, New York. We encounter him just as he's beginning a disastrous marriage with a heartless bimbo named Petal (Blanchett). Their union produces a young daughter named Bunny and years of epic suffering by Quoyle before Petal dies in a ghastly car accident. Emotionally wasted to the point of catatonia, his inertia is broken by the arrival of his aunt Agnis (Dench) who talks him into moving back to his family homestead, located in a tiny, wind-lashed village on the Newfoundland coast. The shock of relocation seems to knock some of the cobwebs from Quoyle's spirit, as does the challenge of a new job for which he's utterly unqualified -- writing newspaper articles (principally blood-and-guts auto wreck coverage) for a local fishwrap published by cranky eccentric Jack Buggit (Glenn). Further stimulation is provided by Bunny's emerging psychic powers, some disturbing revelation about Quoyle family history, and an awkwardly developing romance with local widow Wavey Prowse (Moore). It's a consistently entertaining story, but the Northern Exposure-like preciousness of some of the local-color characters and situations does foster a constant uneasy sense that the whole concoction might abruptly collapse into a warm, gluey glob of meretricious sentiment. But it never happens. Hallström (My Life as a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat) seems to actively encourage his actors to play behind the beat -- to avoid hard one-to-one expressions of feelings that are abundantly obvious from the context. This results (just for example) in a performance by Spacey that parallels in many ways his portrayal of Lester Burnham in American Beauty, yet actually surpasses it in subtlety and intrinsic believability. Moore, too, is at her best. With none of the grating hysteria to which she's occasionally prone, she recaptures the radiant tenderness of her work in Boogie Nights and the equine sense of skittishness and power under unsteady control that she displayed in Magnolia. Hallström is likewise restrained in his use of the staggering natural beauty of his setting, granting it its due as a force in people's lives but never using it as a blunt-force instrument for achieving cheap emotional effect. It's that willingness to earn unabashed human feelings honestly that makes Hallström's occasionally excessive appetite for them easy to forgive.