I am a big fan of Kevin Spacey. I am a big fan of Judi Dench. I really like a lot of Julianne Moore’s performances. So why didn’t I like “The Shipping News” more?
Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) has had a life with few luxuries and little joy. His emotionally abusive father colors the rest of his life, shaping the outcome of everything Quoyle participates in. Working as an inksetter at a newspaper in New York, Quoyle meets Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett), a woman wearing a ton of make-up and short rubber mini-skirts. Petal lures Quoyle into bed and Quoyle has the most satisfying moment of his life, after which he promptly declares that he loves her. Petal becomes pregnant and gives birth to Bunny, their child. But motherhood is not in her plans. Quoyle is essentially left to take care of Bunny. A devestating experience coincides with the death of Quoyle’s parents and the arrival of his aunt, Agnis (Judi Dench). Agnis decides that nephew and grand-niece would be better off in the family’s home-town in Newfoundland. The trio travel north and take up residence in the family home on Quoyle Point. Quoyle gets a job writing the shipping news for the local newspaper, encouraged by the publisher, Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn) and soon meets the local school teacher, Wavey (Julianne Moore). As life becomes more peaceful, Quoyle must deal with his demons and the demons of his ancestors.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and written by Robert Nelson Jacobs, from the book by E. Annie Proulx, “The Shipping News” becomes the latest in a string of films that Miramax has created in a blatant attempt to win an Oscar. Much like last year’s “Chocolat” (also directed by Lasse Hallstrom and co-starring Judi Dench), the film is trying very hard to create an emotional storm, to woo potential Academy Awards and an increased box office. I would like to say that the film fails in these attempts, but I suspect it probably will win some nominations. The more important question is: Does it deserve to win nominations?
Spacey is great. He appears every inch the emotionally beaten man. This man has been given no breaks in life and this has robbed him of all motivation. A bright glimmer of hope arrives in the form of his daughter, Bunny. His life changes a bit, but not enough. When the family arrives in Newfoundland, Spacey introduces small, but significant changes in the character, allowing him to change with the change of scenery. Judi Dench plays perhaps the most interesting character. Hard and grizzled with age, she seems to have an impenetrable hide. Occasionally, Agnis lets Quoyle and Bunny in, and warms up to them, letting the façade crumble away. Julianne Moore is also very good as the school teacher with a mentally challenged little boy and a secret in the past. The cast is uniformly good; Pete Postlethwaite, Jason Behr, Scott Glenn, Rhys Ifans and many others round out the cast of supporting characters, but they can’t overcome the main problems with the story.
There are two main problems. Every single character has a secret in their past or a problem that they are trying to hide. This is intended to give each of the characters some ‘heft’, something to allow the actor to ‘emote’. In some cases, it works, but when every single character has this, it turns the story into a soap opera. Also, the film doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to be, what sort of emotion we should feel. The film creates some genuine laughs about each of the characters but then, in almost every case, the same thing we were laughing about becomes the dramatic pinnacle of this character. In some cases, we shouldn’t be laughing about these things at all. In a way, this made me feel cheated. As I am supposed to feel emotion for this character for this thing, I remembered back to earlier in the film when I was laughing about the same thing. Now that I know the full scope of the problem/ secret/ etc., I can’t buy into it.
I think both of these problems lie squarely on the shoulders of director Lasse Hallstrom and writer Robert Nelson Jacobs. I can’t understand why they would do this so consistently. It robs the film of all impact. My only guess is that they were trying to alleviate the dramatic tension. Unfortunately, the dramatic tension has to be there in the first place for it to be relieved. If we laugh about something before we know what is going on, how can this relieve anything?
The beginning is a brilliant piece of filmmaking. It visually establishes Quoyle’s character and his entire life up to the point where the film takes up. Unfortunately, this is not carried throughout the film.
If you can overlook the blatant attempt at trying to win an Oscar and soap opera feel of the film, there are some good performances worth catching, but the film is definitely a film that can be caught on video. I don’t recommend the film, but I do recommend the performances.