Carolinian – Arts & Entertainment
Issue: 2/11/02

Shipping News better off in print
By John Silver

Movie: The Shipping News
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Judy Dench
Now Playing at: The Grande located at 3205 Northline Avenue
For More Info and Show times call 297-0722
Reviewer’s Rating: ** 1/2 (2 _ stars out of 5)

“In me, he recognized a wasted life–his own.”

Speaking of his father early on in the film, Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), the lonely and eccentric protagonist of The Shipping News, sets the bleak tone that will hover over the rest of the film like a typical cloudy day in Newfoundland.
Lasse Hallstrom’s adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel
is at times very promising, and perhaps it is that promise that makes the film’s aimless conclusions and meandering that much more disappointing.
It’s one of those stories that most likely would have been better off to
remain solely in print form. Not because the characters cannot be represented outwardly, but because the film is so veering in its character development tendencies that a 2-hour effort cannot possibly do the characters and their problems justice. Or worse, perhaps, I fear we may not even care to see the characters fully realized on screen, as most of the traits that make them interesting whither and become stale halfway through.
Take Quoyle, for instance. Here is a sad case–a confused, humble fellow who
was traumatized by a childhood incident that nearly left him drowned after his father tries to teach him to swim the old fashioned way–stay afloat or die. He has grown up to be proud of his job as ink setter at the local newspaper, all the while reflecting thoughtfully on a ‘wasted life’.
For Quoyle, things in the past don’t just simply make for old memories, they are
very much things of the present for him because he, more or less, has nothing
else to think about.
So when he happens to conveniently cross paths with Petal (Cate Blanchett), a
gaudy stripper-type who has an eye on Quoyle to provide her with some security, he flips out and falls desperately in love with the last woman he should have. Promiscuity in front of his nose, drugs, a temper–all these things are pedestrian to a hopeless Quoyle who thinks that he’s somehow to blame for his problems with Petal, all the while waiting on her hand and foot. Eventually, she bails on him and takes their daughter along with
her and the fellow she’s banging that week.

“What about daddy?” the young girl asks.

“Daddy’s boring.” Petal answers.

Well as it turns out, Petal becomes even more boring, because she becomes a
corpse. She and the fellow she runs off with die in a viscous car accident, and it is here where Quoyle is faced with a stressful situation and where we get the first glimpse of what the story might really be about. Facing the biggest adversity of his life, Quoyle is visited by a long lost aunt named Agnis (Judy Dench) who shows up out of the blue to take him and his daughter back to his original home, Newfoundland, to start a new life. We eventually learn of Agnis’ ulterior motives in returning, but that’s best left for the
audience to discover.
Quoyle and his daughter return with Agnis to the gaunt, foggy atmosphere of a
small village on the coast where they begin work on a house that hasn’t seen life in years. One of the film’s strengths lies in its portrayal of the community and the feeling of familiarity we get from such a dreary place. Quoyle eventually begins to settle in, meeting some locals and getting a new job as a reporter for the local Shipping News paper. He also finds time to schmooze with an attractive local widow (Julianne Moore), even though the movie seems oblivious to shining any real light into the relationship
shenanigans that are fostered.
The main problem with the second half of the film is that it requires us to
have more emotional residue left over from the beginning than we actually do.
The beginning sequence with Petal and her pending emotional bearing on Quoyle
is dealt with in such haste that the audience is cheated out of any real connection to this important set up. Kevin Spacey’s character transformation is so dramatic and seemingly effortless in his new surroundings that we’re hard-pressed to understand why he still hurts so much over Petal’s death.
It’s hard for us to relate or sympathize because the film is much too concerned with getting on with the narrative, and in doing so leaves out the essential ingredient that would have made Quoyle’s grief so much more poignant.
I’m rambling. The point is The Shipping News has moments of greatness, where
we get to see how these characters and their plight effect the direction and desolate theme of the film. Much too often, though, the film drifts into aimless narrative routes, pointing its nose in lots of different directions, yet is never able to decide with any conviction what it wants to say or where it wants to go.
When the last scene has played out, we’re left with a strikingly hollow
ending that begs one to ask: Yeah, so?