Director: Lasse Hallström
Writer:Robert Nelson Jacobs; based on the novel The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Cinematographer: Oliver Stapleton
Producer: Rob Cowan, Leslie Holleran, and Irwin Winkler
by Jon Cvack
There was a movement between the late 90s and early 00s that provided such incredible mid-budgeted Domestic Dramas as In the Bedroom (‘01), You Can Count on Me (‘00), and The Ice Storm (‘97), typically taking place in small towns, featuring a broken family attempting to repair their severed or severing ties, with filmmakers like Ang Lee and Kenneth Lonergan going onto bigger and better things, and Todd Field looking to become one of the all time greats, though failing to provide another project since 2009’s Tom Perotta adaptation Little Children.
I had never read the Pulitzer Price winning The Shipping News, but heard amazing things. Lasse Hallstrom directs the story, who provided the wonderful coming of age John Irving adaptation The Cider House Rules (‘99) only a couple years prior. The Shipping News is equally impressive in craft and photography, but the story seems far too large for its two hour running time, introducing so many characters and plots that by the end it races to catch up and resolve them, leaving you with far more questions than answers, making you want to read the book in order to fill in the blanks, knowing that some of the more fantastical elements simply failed to translate.
The story stars Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) as a pathetically passive middle aged man who suddenly (within minutes) meets the trashy, though sexy Petal (Cate Blanchett), who declares within seconds that within a few hours she would fuck him. In a brilliant montage, we witness the rise and quick fall of their relationship, delivering a baby name Bunny (played by three actresses) along the way. Petal’s interest in Quoyle fades as fast it arrived, with her heading off to local dive bars and hooking up with whatever hunk of meat she happened to seduce, leaving you wondering what she saw in Quoyle to begin with, other than the obvious and easy exploitable man who could give her… something of which I’m not really sure. She takes off with one of the men, taking Bunny and selling her into sexual slavery (or as they call it a “Black Market Orphanage”). If things couldn’t get worse, Quoyle’s parents both kill themselves, though not before leaving a voicemail explaining their action and how disappointed they are in what Quoyle became. As things appear incapable of getting any bleaker, a long lost relative of Quolyle’s, Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench), shows up and invites him to start anew in Newfoundland.
It’s around this point where the movie attempts to condense far too many characters and plots into the remaining 90 minutes, with Quoyle learning he’s descended from barbaric pirates who use to pillage ships and assault women; Hamm putting Quolyle and Bunny up in a rundown house that’s held up against the strong gales by thick cables; a love interest, Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), and her handicapped son; ghosts showing up at the house, and really pushing the limits of story by not really providing any clarity other than it’s not really a ghost, but a man who ties knots in ropes to help relieve a strange curse on the house; Quolyle’s job at a newspaper where he works with the film’s strongest cast, involving Pete Postlethwaite, Scott Glenn, and Rhys Ifans, with Scott Glenn’s character Jake Buggit drowning in a boating accident, laid down at a wake days later, where right as someone provides the final words, he coughs up water, alive, further pushing into the movie into nonsense; a brother who raped his sister Hamm, who she later killed; and even more absurdities that I’m leaving out. If I had only read the synopsis, I'd consider it a parody of the subgenre.
What’s most disappointing is that, for all these elements, the moral of the story (the film version, that is) seems to be that you can’t escape your past, you can only change it, so try and change for the better. Or something. It’s a beautiful movie, and it left me wondering what ever happened to Lasse Hallstrom who, other than a few Nicholas Sparks adaptations and The Hoax ('06), hasn’t really made a movie I’ve heard of since. The camerawork and imagery are so strong, the performances fairly incredible, and yet it all added up into nothing much. Compared to The Cider House Rules or My Life as a Dog, both incredible coming of age stories, this left me hoping he’d return back to these smaller, more intimate dramas, rather than continuing the foray into colorful romance novels. It’s always a disappointment to see such incredible talent fall.
BELOW: Spacey's character is too pathetic to be believable
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