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USA 2001
Directed by
Lasse Hallstrom
111 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Drew Arthurson
1.5 stars

The Shipping News

Synopsis: Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) is a shy, softly spoken and introspective fellow who becomes entangled with the vivacious Petal (Cate Blanchett). Petal falls pregnant soon after, and they give birth to a daughter. Their relationship is abruptly ended by Petal's tragic, though not unforeseen, demise. Shortly after, Quoyle's aunt, Agnis (Judi Dench), arrives, and suggests that both he and his daughter travel with her to Newfoundland to claim, and re-establish, their remote family home. Once in the isolated fishing town, Quoyle slowly begins to face the past and an uncertain future, as he lands a job as a reporter writing the shipping news, and as he becomes linked with child-care worker and widow, Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore).

Newfoundland is wonderfully captured in this visually accomplished feature. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton uses the rugged, majestic and seemingly untouched landscapes of north-eastern Canada to full effect, giving the viewer sweeping shots of a barren seacoast and icy countryside cut off from surrounding towns during the winter. Newfoundland is presented as a place of geographical extremes that extends to, in many instances, its quirky and idiosyncratic locals. With such an evocative and dramatic backdrop it is a pity that director Lasse Hallström fails to deliver.

At its core, the film's visuals (and plotline to a lesser extent) hark back to a superior film, John Sayles' Limbo (1999), which examined life in a small Alaskan fishing town. Hallström's last two features, Chocolat (2000) and The Cider House Rules (1999), were overly sentimental and endlessly predictable exercises in middlebrow cinema. I had hoped that his film version of E. Annie. Proulx's novel, 'The Shipping News', a doggedly hard-bitten, reflective ode to the lives of the salty Newfoundlanders, would capture some of the novel's unremitting force and deliver an honest, though not unsympathetic, adaptation. I was, for the most part, disappointed.

What drags The Shipping News into the under-whelming, semi-emotional mire, is Hallström's willingness to invest in several problematic, often uneasy plot-lines, but to never follow them through. The result is a raft of secondary (only to Quoyle) characters who parade across the screen with seemingly significant concerns and experiences, but are given little time, and room, to move, before the viewer is led away from the scene, or theme, of the moment.

Whilst such characters bolster the novel's examination of bereavement and the process of "moving on", the film lets them flounder in under-written roles. Spacey, as the forlorn Quoyle, appears to over-reach, and as a result, is unconvincing. However, Judi Dench, as Agnis and Julianne Moore, as Wavey, both give good turns as strong willed, independent women with the little script development they get. Cate Blanchett, as Petal, is the standout (despite a brief appearance in the film), giving a charged performance as the fly-by-night vixen. There are some touching, optimistic and equally sombre moments in The Shipping News, but they are infrequent, and ultimately lost in the wash of Hallström's heavy-handed, glossy sentimentality.




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