The Shipping News

2001, Movie, R, 117 mins


Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx, this drama charts one man's gradual awakening to the world's rich possibilities. Thirty-six-year-old Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) has shambled through life unloved and unnoticed, doing dead-end jobs and haunted by miserable memories of a joyless childhood. The slatternly Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett) bursts into this humdrum existence like a cherry bomb: She demands a lift, cadges lunch and informs Quoyle that he wants to marry her. Unprepared to weather such emotional gales, he does. They have a daughter, Bunny (Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer), and settle swiftly into marital misery. Shortly after the double suicide of Quoyle's estranged parents, the relentlessly unfaithful Petal decamps with a boyfriend, taking Bunny with her. It's at this unfortunate juncture that Quoyle's flinty Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) arrives. Middle-aged Agnis, who's working the knots out of her own life, is en route to Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, and the long-deserted family house in which she was born. After the police retrieve Bunny (her mom sold her to an illegal adoption ring for running-away money) and deliver the news that Petal has died in a car accident, she persuades the grief-stricken Quoyle to join her and make a fresh start. Newfoundland is a shock to the newcomers: It's chilly in the summer, boats outnumber cars (Quoyle hates the water) and the ramshackle house at Quoyle Point creaks, leaks, and is literally lashed to the ground against the howling winds. But Quoyle finds a job at the local paper, The Gammy Bird, and a friend (and perhaps more) in local schoolmistress Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), who's hiding her own secret sorrow. We, meanwhile, learn there's none so queer as Newfoundland folk: They eat squid burgers and seal-flipper pie, bear silly names, believe in visions (being "sensitive") and have colorful histories, none more so than the Quoyles. Of course, the more Quoyle learns about his forebears the less he likes them, but that's all part of the process of learning to love himself. Though generally well acted, this film has all the unfortunate earmarks of a "quality" adaptation of an acclaimed novel. It's crammed with characters who never quite amount to more than the sum of their eccentricities, embellished with exotic detail (like that seal-flipper pie), flashbacks (you can almost see the italics) and harshly beautiful vistas, the eye-candy equivalents of literary language. But everything has a fusty, embalmed quality: Whatever gave the novel its vitality has been smothered. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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