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The Shipping News

The Shipping News

Fans of E. Annie Proulx will find little to love in this adaptation, and those who haven’t read her 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel may wonder what the big deal is about The Shipping News. There’s something in Proulx’s deceptively simple, straightforward prose that casts a spell, pulling her reader into not just the details of a specific world, but the way it feels to be there. This film adaptation doesn’t capture that magic, even though it’s faithful to most of her plot points and was filmed on location in Newfoundland.

Swedish director Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog) has become an American master of middlebrow literary adaptations (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules), and his style is unobtrusive and insightful, allowing actors to blossom before the camera while creating the illusion of profundity where none exists. But The Shipping News is so bland and lifeless that there’s no investment in the fate of fish-out-of-water Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), who’s retreated to his family’s abandoned homestead on Canada’s craggy Atlantic coastline.

A painfully ordinary man shattered by the death of his charismatic estranged wife Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett), Quolye takes their young daughter (trimmed from two in the novel) from upstate New York to the small fishing town of Killick-Claw, where he begins a tentative romance with another lost soul, Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore). Quoyle’s move is prompted by a surprise visit from his aunt Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench), who embodies the tough-minded determination of isolated Newfies, and reveals why an individual would want to leave this tightly knit community.

Both Quoyle and Agnis return home to heal a rift in their lives, and that’s a delicate thing to pull off, particularly when screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs fills this emotionally wrought landscape with carefully placed landmines. These revelations unleash a torrent of family secrets (infidelity, homosexuality, incest, even piracy) that push the naturally reticent characters into choppy waters.

Is it true that only bad novels make good movies? For every ten cases proving that theory, there’s a notable exception. In the case of The Shipping News, a trip to the bookstore would yield a more rewarding experience.

Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on December 25, 2001 by Miramax
First published in the Metro Times.