(director/writer: Lasse Hallstrom; screenwriters: Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by E. Annie Proulx; cinematographer: Oliver Stapleton; editor: Andrew Mondshein; music: Christopher Young; cast: Kevin Spacey (Quoyle), Julianne Moore (Wavey Prowse), Judi Dench (Agnis Hamm), Scott Glenn (Jack Buggit), Rhys Ifans (Beaufield Nutbeem), Pete Postlethwaite (Tert Card), Cate Blanchett (Petal), Jason Behr (Dennis Buggit), Gordon Pinsent (Billy Pretty), Alyssa Gainer/Kaitlyn Gainer/Lauren Gainer (Bunny Quoyle); Runtime: 111; Miramax; 2001)

“The story is played as a warm and fuzzy one, a fairy tale where children are revered and one’s family roots are sacred.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Lasse Hallstrom’s warm-hearted humanist, sentimental melodrama is based on the popular novel by E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News. It tells the story of a man, a family, a house, and a place. The moral of the story is that if a drowned man could be revived, then maybe even a broken-hearted man can also be saved. This man has to go back to his roots and once there he is able to confront the ghosts from his past, which makes it possible for him to face his future. Its special feature is the sumptuous photography capturing the austere but striking wintry landscape of Newfoundland, Canada, and highlighting a fix-it-up saltbox house with dark secrets that sits tied to the ground by cables and overlooks a cliff that faces the always threatening sea. The atmosphere reflects the harsh climate of the place and the quaintness of the locals, and their delight in serving to outsiders such exotic food as seal-flipper pie. What the film fails to do, is capture what the more hard-nosed book tried to say about these bitter events in a more literary language and in a sharper tone. The film is only a sugary and surface telling of the more complex story presented in the book, as the abbreviated story can’t flesh out the many characters it presents or make all the bombshells that it drops be impactful to its picturebook story in the same way the book does. The film reminds me of those schooldays when the lazier students used Cliff Notes instead of reading the classic, and from the short version they had an idea what the story they were supposed to read is about.

Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) is a born loser, ground down by his unbearable father into a wimp. In a shot shown repeatedly throughout the story, the cruel father nearly drowns his child while teaching him how to do the dog-paddle. The boy grows up in his Poughkeepsie, N.Y. home as a failure to the father because he’s not like others, but he eventually finds some satisfaction working as an ink setter for the local newspaper. Spacey’s calculated performance plays for every drop of sympathy from the audience, as he mugs for the camera as everyone steps over him and he becomes like an idiot child who is so naive that he’s either angelic or brainless. The performance was a false one, as it didn’t seem genuine as much as a show he was putting on of how he thinks such a beaten down person should act.

A wild-woman, Petal (Cate Blanchett), jumps into Quoyle’s parked car after a spat with her lover by a gas station. They have a one-night-stand that results in an unwanted for her daughter, Bunny (played at different ages by sisters Alyssa, Kaitlyn, and Lauren Gainer). It results in a failed marriage to a man she looks down upon and openly disses by seeing other men. After a few years of this loveless marriage, Petal runs away with her newest boyfriend and takes Bunny with her. But Petal is accidently drowned in a car crash and the daughter who was sold on the black market, is safely recovered by the police. At the same time Quoyle’s father and mother commit suicide.

While Quoyle is depressed about his unfortunate life his father’s half-sister, Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench), an aunt he never knew, visits him so that she can steal the cremation ashes from his father’s urn and thereby flush it down the toilet when she takes a dump. Agnis takes pity on the timid Quoyle and invites him and his daughter to come with her back to the Quoyle’s old home in Newfoundland and start life over fresh again, by going back to his roots.

The story is played as a warm and fuzzy one, a fairy tale where children are revered and one’s family roots are sacred. Quoyle is willing to give this distance place a chance if he can find work, and therefore goes to the local paper to get hired as an ink setter. But the quirky newspaper owner, Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), makes him a reporter covering the shipping news in this coastal fishing village because that’s the only job that’s open. Jack is not concerned that he has no experience as a journalist, he just has a feeling he can do the job because of his forefathers.

Quoyle soon becomes involved with Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), an attractive and kind-hearted widow with a brain-damaged son, who runs the day-care center. In due time Quoyle begins to get his life together and he develops a romantic interest in Wavey and learns some social skills that get him by with the mean-spirited newspaper editor, Tert (Postlethwaite). He also learns of his dysfunctional family history which includes an ugly incident involving piracy, a murder, an incest and a rape. As he absorbs these terrible family secrets, he begins to heal from a lifetime of rejection and he finds that he has a tentative place in his new community that accepts him for who he is. This story might be the same as the book, but the mood is a world apart.

Though Spacey’s performance fails to do the trick and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs’ adaptation is inadequate to do the story justice, the performances of Judi Dench and Julianne Moore are closer to the unsentimental way Proulx wrote about the characters. They are the film’s saving grace, as they give some depth to a film that is too gooey to fully digest.

What I learned most from the film was “Tea is a good drink; it keeps you going.”