Everyone is a critic…

New York Observer January 21, 2002 Boats In, Boats Out, And a Town Full of Stories by Andrew Sarris

Lasse Hallström’s The Shipping News, from a screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by E. Annie Proulx, has received very mixed reviews since its release. But long before then it had become the victim of a persistent “buzz” in the trade papers, the gossip columns and on the Internet—so much so, apparently, that the picture has been dismissed as a mess, Mr. Hallström wound up in the hospital before he could sign off on a final edit, and six minutes of the film were cut after the first screening.

I am baffled by all the negativity surrounding it, and I am prepared to designate it as the most underrated film of 2001. I am surprised also that Kevin Spacey has been widely branded as miscast and ineffective in the lyrically submerged role of a congenital loser named Quoyle, whose tangled roots drive him back to Newfoundland after a series of disasters that occur while he is working as an ink-setter for a newspaper in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Since I can’t imagine any other actor in such a nebbish role being half as effective as Mr. Spacey, I can only urge my readers to rush off to this singularly stirring entertainment before it disappears from view. However, if you do plan to see The Shipping News, you may not want to read any further in this review until after you have seen the movie’s jolts, surprises and epiphanies for yourself.

The movie begins with what I can only describe as a lyrical linkage between Quoyle, the ever-drowning, water-hating child, and Quoyle, the still-drowning adult. The child has been thrown off his father’s dock as a “tough love” way of teaching the boy to swim. As the boy gazes helplessly up from the depths, his face dissolves into that of the grown-up Quoyle still drowning, metaphorically, in the sea of existence. We realize instantly that he has not done very much with his life, and his life has not done very much with him. Mr. Hallström and his collaborators have thus established a character and life pattern in record time without wallowing in a sea of behavioral mediocrity. We see Quoyle at his unrewarding post, by a circulating machine we have seen so many times spewing out newspapers with melodramatic headlines. Here the presses are de-dramatized as we see everything from Quoyle’s point of view.

Things change very rapidly when a voracious female named Petal (Cate Blanchett) invades Quoyle’s life and barely gives him a chance to breathe before she has bedded him, married him and presented him with a little girl named Bunny, whom Quoyle cares for dutifully while Petal is out carousing with other men, and not just out. On occasion, she brings her lovers right into the house, and keeps complaining to her husband about how boring he is. It is hard for an actor or a character to keep his dignity in this situation, particularly in these macho times for many movie going tastes.

Still, the story keeps getting more outrageous than life, especially after Quoyle receives a telephone call from his father telling him that he and Quoyle’s mother are about to commit joint suicide, and want Quoyle to make the funeral arrangements. It is about this time that Petal runs off with her current lover and takes Bunny with her. Curiously, Bunny has always loved Petal despite, or perhaps because of, her excesses. Nonetheless, Quoyle persists in believing that Petal and Bunny will return, a belief that transcends stupidity into becoming a kind of heroism. The police arrive at his door to tell him that Petal and her lover have died in an automobile accident. Bunny is safe, however, because Petal sold her for $6,000 before she embarked on her fatal trip. The irony is that Bunny continues to love Petal, and for a long time refuses to believe that she is dead.

It is in the midst of these catastrophes that Quoyle’s Aunt Agile (Judi Dench) arrives at his doorstep to claim the ashes of her brother, Quoyle’s father. She then persuades Quoyle to start a new life with Bunny in their “ancestral” home in Newfoundland, actually a ramshackle house precariously anchored on an ocean-side cliff. When Quoyle first sees the house, he cannot believe that he and Bunny and Aunt Agile can possibly live in this wreck of a dwelling. But Aunt Agile persists, and Quoyle and Bunny bunk down for a new life.

Quoyle applies for a job at the local newspaper with only his ink-setting position in Poughkeepsie to recommend him. He is immediately recruited as a reporter by the managing editor, Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite). Quoyle’s job is to report the shipping news, picayune as it is in this small fishing port. The paper’s owner, Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), gives Quoyle his most valuable lessons in magnifying a routine story into a journalistic coup. But to succeed, Quoyle must overcome his understandable lifelong aversion to water.

As Quoyle gains confidence about his place in the picturesque town of Killick-Claw, he takes the initiative in courting a local widow, Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), and her retarded son, Harry (Will McAllister). Wavey tends to look more kindly on Quoyle when Bunny becomes the only child ever to bond with Henry. But Wavey is no pushover, and Quoyle discovers he has to go deeper into his feelings than he has ever gone before to land Wavey, who has her own secret about her husband. Despite its seeming quaintness, Killick-Claw is the repository of many cruel secrets, all of which are revealed by the final fade-out, though not without some initial puzzlement.

When Aunt Agile enters the family’s outhouse to pour her brother’s ashes down the hole, and then proceeds to defecate on his last remains, it is not until much later that we and Quoyle discover that Aunt Agile is simply avenging an old wrong. So much becomes clear about Quoyle’s father, and, in the process, Quoyle begins healing his own wounds as he starts his new life.

There has been a lot of talk about this movie or that being faithful to this book or that. Ms. Proulx has stated that she is quite pleased with the adaptation of her much admired novel. But even if it could be demonstrated that the filmmakers did not dot every i and cross every t in transferring a prose work into a film, I would argue that a film stands or falls on its own merits as film irrespective of its literary source. It may therefore be possible to imagine a stronger and tighter film than this version of The Shipping News, but I am inclined these days to embrace positives rather than hold out for ultimates.

There is more than a little humor, dark as it may be, in this version of The Shipping News. Mr. Spacey’s Quoyle pops up unexpectedly from time to time with comments that are witty and pithy—some in headline form—and I find that sign of complexity interesting in a character who is otherwise a candidate for total condescension. Julianne Moore projects warmth as Wavey, and it is welcome in a film that without her could be as cold emotionally as it is climactically. In a very small part, Cate Blanchett displays an amazing versatility in humanizing a preposterous character like Petal. And what can one say about Judi Dench that has not been said over and over again forever and forever?

If I had to encapsulate the movie in two scenes, I would begin with the frenzied spectacle of Bunny hammering away homicidally at her doll because she found it “boring,” a quality she fears her mother Petal found in her to cause her to abandon her. When Quoyle, witnessing Bunny’s rage, tells Wavey that Bunny worries him when she beats the brains out of her doll, Wavey calmly observes that the doll is a toy, not a person, and Quoyle shouldn’t worry. I found Wavey’s attitude very wise and compassionate. I have no idea where the idea for these scenes came from: the book, the screenplay, the director or all three, but they are typical of all the small moments that eventually coalesce into an expansive celebration of several repaired psyches. It is good also to see Scott Glenn and Pete Postlethwaite supplying more than their share of local atmosphere.

Copyright©2001 New York Observer

Entertainment Weekly – January 11, 2002
Movie Review by Owen Gleiberman

It has become a hallowed ritual of the cinematic calendar. For the third holiday season in a row, director Lasse Hallström has brought to the screen an esteemed lit’rary property, turning it into an earnest, uplifting Oscar hopeful for Miramax Films. On the surface, these movies — ”The Cider House Rules,” ”Chocolat,” and now The Shipping News — may look quite different, but really, all three utilize the same recipe. Take a big, chewy, ”important” subject; meticulously half bake until the characters, whatever their flavors, emerge as a warm and fluffy community; gently milk for popularity and prestige; and voilà! — you have a blandly high-toned Christmas cookie, otherwise known as the latest edition of Lasse & Harvey’s Holiday Art-House Special. Just be sure not to gag on your eggnog.

Except that it’s not going to work this time. Both ”The Cider House Rules” and ”Chocolat” were well-cooked pabulum, with their unassailable liberal views of, respectively, abortion rights (how bold!) and the right to… uh, eat chocolate and make love (how really bold!). But ”The Shipping News,” adapted from Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is just a limp and sodden downer. It’s set mostly in the damp, cold, gray-sweater climes of Newfoundland, where a widower named Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), the saddest of sad sacks, has arrived with his young daughter, all so that he can redeem the sullen tragedy of his life by learning to be a vital human being instead of a glum, stammering lump of self-loathing.

For most of the movie, though, he’s just a lump. It’s not entirely clear what Spacey thought he was doing, but his minimalist performance consists of not much more than standing around in a black wool cap looking fleshy and morose, as if he were a schoolboy about to burst into tears. Quoyle, as presented, isn’t a hero, or even an antihero. He’s just a wallflower in search of a screenwriter. How can this nonentity be redeemed? ”The Shipping News” throws him together with a fellow single parent (Julianne Moore) who’s got a few haunted corners of her own. He also goes to work for the local newspaper, a job that allows him to get in touch with the colorful reporter within, even though we’re given zero evidence that he can write or even hold a conversation.

Is it just me, or does a novel like ”The Shipping News” express nothing so much as a kind of free-floating depression? Quoyle, led to Newfoundland by his long-lost aunt (Judi Dench), discovers the dirty dark secret of his family, yet divorced from the gummy waywardness of Proulx’s prose, nothing in the movie makes much sense. A corpse discovered at sea, an oil-company scandal — these plot points are introduced only to be thrown away moments later. The real point is that we’re all supposed to feel real good about Kevin Spacey finally coming out of his shell. Sorry: He lost that shell a long time ago. C-

‘Shipping News’ Treads Water
Friday, December 28, 2001; Page WE37
By Desson Howe

WashingtonPostDec25IN “THE Shipping News,” director Lasse Hallstrom’s sluggish adaptation of the E. Annie Proulx novel, the withdrawn Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) has been fighting for air ever since his father threw him into the water. That childhood incident, a sink-or-swim education, has left him breathless, afraid and aimless.

Which makes him easy prey for Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett), an almost sociopathic man-hunter who seduces the hapless Quoyle with all the charm of a hooker, marries him, conceives his child and treats him like dirt on the rare occasions when she’s home.

Petal simply wants to be a kept woman. And Quoyle is just one of many men helping her plan. And just before her untimely, well-deserved demise, she attempts to sell their child, Bunny (played by Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer), to a black market adoption agency. No love lost there. But Quoyle is left shaken, a single parent without confidence or a job.

Hallstrom speeds through this opening section as if he’s impatient to get to the later stuff. It’s so swiftly done, this early section, that it’s hardly worth the trouble. Clearly, the primary action is going to take place in Newfoundland, where Quoyle inherits a remote family home. Moving there with Bunny and his oddball aunt, Agnis (Judi Dench), he starts a new life.

His new job as a writer for the local shipping news column yields an office-load of new acquaintances (including Scott Glenn, Pete Postlethwaite and Rhys Ifans). And Quoyle meets and falls in love with single mother and widow Wavey (Julianne Moore), who suffered similar trauma in her past.

He also learns about his family’s dark secrets — why, for instance, their house was literally moved from a nearby island to Newfoundland.

Hallstrom, whose most engaging film remains “My Life as a Dog,” plays to his strength: the depiction of funny, offbeat supporting characters. Postlethwaite is probably the funniest as Quoyle’s jealous colleague. And Agnis’s resentment of Quoyle’s late father is made amusingly clear when she takes the old man’s ashes to the outhouse.

But “The Shipping News,” awash in hackneyed old-time secrets and hydrophobic metaphor, never consumes us as it should. Despite an intriguing premise and a spectacular, rugged setting, it’s a loping affair. Hallstrom and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, the team that gave us the spectacularly ordinary “Chocolat,” have concocted another box of mediocrity.

Spacey, a terrific actor, has his moments. But he’s playing a man who spends most of the movie reacting to other people, rarely taking charge of his life. Quoyle’s gradual awakening, or resuscitation, is such a painstaking, uninvolving experience, we’re more than willing to leave him alone with his house, daughter, new love and grim weather when the movie closes.

— Desson Howe

THE SHIPPING NEWS (R, 124 minutes) — Contains sexual situations, obscenity and disturbing images. Area theaters.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

Letter to the editor: Free for All – Saturday, January 5, 2002; Page A19
I Don’t Want to Know

Why do some film reviewers seem to take pleasure in divulging clever bits in movies and not leaving them for the filmgoer to discover? Was Desson Howe just trying to fill up space or to show off his insider knowledge when he gave away one of this film year’s best, if brief, ironic comic moments in Judi Dench’s character’s turn with the urn in “The Shipping News” [Weekend, Dec. 28]?

How often today do we get a surprise that is not only funny and not a throwaway but also part of a thread that winds throughout a story? My friends and I were fortunate to see the film the night before Howe’s review was published, which meant that we were allowed to discover its many subtle and not-so-subtle pleasures on our own.

— Anne W. Patchell

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

‘Shipping News’: In a Bleak World, The Promise of a Sea Change
By Rita Kempley Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2001; Page C01

“The Shipping News” moves at a glacial pace, thawing as gradually as its protagonist, a middle-aged loser who has been frozen in fear since his abusive childhood. This strangely hypnotic adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel chronicles his brooding journey toward self-recovery.

Although there are rays of hope, the melancholy drama takes on the characteristics of the story’s chilly setting of Newfoundland, island of weathered faces and blustery skies. Director Lasse Hallstrom captures the landscape’s stark, stormy beauty as well as its impact on its people.

Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), a hapless city boy, is a descendant of the pirates who first raided and then settled the Atlantic island. His ancestors’ blood still burned in his battering father’s veins and, though less brightly, in his own. Ultimately he will learn that he inherited strength and determination enough to rebuild his world.

The movie opens with a quick synopsis of Quoyle’s résumé of underachievement, culminating in his current post as an inker with a daily newspaper in Upstate New York. He has accepted his uneventful routine, even wallowed in it, when the brazen, tarty Petal (Cate Blanchett) bursts into his life, and Quoyle is smitten by this man-eating hothouse flower. They are married, she becomes pregnant with a daughter, Bunny, and after the delivery, she takes up with a series of lovers.

When she is killed in a car accident, Quoyle and Bunny, now 6, are rescued by his flinty aunt Agnis Hamm (reliable Judi Dench), who drags them with her to Newfoundland, their ancestral home. The battered family house still perches above the sea cliffs, though surely it would have blown away had it not been anchored there by braids of thick, creaking cables.

Bunny’s psychic talents, or maybe only her imagination, are fueled by the noises of the house settling in for the night. On stormy nights, the cables seem to moan in pain. And the place is haunted by the family’s perverse past — and, if Bunny is right, by a ghost and his white dog. Apparently psychic powers come with the territory, encouraged by the Zen rhythms of the fishing village of Killick-Claw.

Though his only newspaper experience involves the presses, Quoyle is hired to write a shipping column for the local newspaper. His quirky colleagues quickly hone his writing skills, such as they are, and with each article, Quoyle grows a little bit taller.

There’s also love on the horizon — a widowed schoolteacher, Wavey Prouse (Julianne Moore in a sweet performance). Initially they are drawn together by mutual loss, though their relationship becomes more complex and conflicted as their hesitant courtship progresses.

Moore and Spacey’s affair doesn’t throw off a lot of heat. That’s okay, because they have been hurt before, and they have to trust before they can love. Blanchett, on the other hand, is as steamy as a sauna, and what a convincing witch she makes, too. She, along with Pete Postlethwaite, Scott Glenn and Rhys Ifans as newspapermen, adds a splash of fun to the proceedings.

Spacey, with his plodding gait and apologetic air, doesn’t bring Quoyle to life. He resuscitates him, teaches him to stand up straighter and look other people in the eye. It’s a solid performance, if a stolid one, and the same can be said for the movie.

Hallstrom, who previously directed Oscar nominees “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules,” has carved a niche for himself adapting small-town family dramas. He ably brings the communities to life, though this film has neither the tastiness of the one nor the bite of the other. For better or worse, it smells of salt air, squid burgers and fishing boats. It’s worth seeing at the very least because it is so different from standard Hollywood fare.

The Shipping News (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, nudity and sexuality.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

Proulx’s prose loses something on screen
Review: ‘Shipping News’ hasn’t got quite the right sound as it did in Annie Proulx’s novel. By Michael Sragow Sun Movie Critic December 25, 2001

Pundits often put down audiobooks as Classic Comics for commuters. But I can’t wait to find a copy of Robert Joy reading Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News.

To my eye and ear, Proulx’s mannered, deadly patches revive when read out loud – and Joy, who has a small part in the movie, is just the kind of idiosyncratic actor who can pull off her prose. The syntax that unwinds and contracts, often in staccato fashion, and the lilting lists and descriptions come together in an invented brogue that has as much to do with Proulx’s own rhythmic sense as it does with the accents of her upstate New York and Newfoundland settings.

The team that adapted the book for the screen should have made the sound of its words its first priority. Instead, the screenwriter, Robert Nelson Jacobs, and the director, Lasse Halstrom, have tried to heighten selected material from the sprawling novel into a tidy fable about returning to your roots and healing. The movie has just the right slate-gray, wind-swept look.

And Kevin Spacey, the star, has compared its structure to that of an onion – supposedly, each layer peels away to reveal, at last, a core. But the layers lack pungency, the core is hollow, and the peeler resembles a Veg-a-Matic.

Spacey plays Proulx’s hero, Quoyle, and presents the woeful image of an actor adjusting to miscasting. The book’s Quoyle is obese and has a giant malformed chin. Spacey ignored the chin, gained 20 pounds. What’s fatal is that he made heaviness the leitmotif of his performance. He drains his eyes, his inflections and his movements of all vitality.

Many a great actor has scored a coup with the kind of watchful, wary fellow who gets other people to talk; think of De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America. But there’s a comic, show-off element to Spacey’s talent that cries out for expression here. It may be that Spacey’s reverence for Jack Lemmon will lead him down the same path from sly, instinctive genius to boring worthiness. The Shipping News is a big, sad step in that direction.

The film’s one live wire, and the closest it gets to having a catalyst, is Cate Blanchett as Quoyle’s avidly unfaithful wife Petal, a trampy speed demon who seduces him, weds him and gives birth to his daughter before her violent departure. Hard on the heels of the joint suicide of his parents, Quoyle is sent into a tailspin by Petal’s demise; he accepts the bold suggestion of his newfound Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) that he return with his daughter to his ancestral home in Newfoundland.

What ensues is a series of mild enigmas mixed in with local-color “characters” and Quoyle’s pathetically tentative wooing of a local woman named Wavey (Julianne Moore). Quoyle’s prescient daughter Bunny senses mysteries in the wreck of a family hilltop house held in place by cables. And, indeed, everyone Quoyle encounters has a secret, including Agnis and Wavey. And we learn them all – even if we never learn why we should care.

The flashbacks to the pirate past of the Quoyle clan serve only to provide some melodramatic contrasts and underline the attractiveness of the hero’s gentleness. The Quoyles dragging their home over ice to its current location pales before a similar scene in this year’s earlier The Claim, which placed the picturesque sight in a situation that gave it meaning.

Blanchett aside, my favorite part of the movie is a newspaper comedy: Quoyle, a newspaper ink-setter, applies for a job at The Gammy Bird – the local newspaper in the port of Killick-Claw – and finds himself reporting on car crashes and shipping news. The setup is full of easy ironies (Petal died in a crash, and Quoyle fears water), and the resolutions are even easier (Quoyle overcomes his aversions and his fears).

Yet there’s something pleasurable about the Foreign Legion quality of a provincial newsroom, where people wind up from nowhere and bond amid the charged limbo of deadlines and slashed copy. Scott Glenn and Pete Postlethwaite show up as, respectively, the baronial editor-in-chief and the alternately dictatorial and cowardly managing editor. The best of them is Gordon Pinsent as the tart, pithy old salt who teaches Quoyle how to conceive stories in headlines. Too bad it will set many viewers to thinking: ‘Shipping’ Bad News.

Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun

December 25, 2001
An Outsider Finds His Future by Facing His Past By STEPHEN HOLDEN

At its most memorable, Lasse Hallstrom’s pictorially sumptuous screen adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s novel “The Shipping News” offers stirring panoramas of the severe, rugged seacoast of northeastern Canada. With its churning seascapes, worthy of Winslow Homer, in 20 shades of gray, and fading purple sunsets pressed against the sky like cosmic handprints, the movie at moments evokes the same awed sense of human insignificance as the desert island sequences in “Cast Away.” Two indelible images are of an austere saltbox house being towed by a human chain across the ice, and the stark silhouette of the same house, a symbol of desolation, etched against the luminous evening sky.

Ms. Proulx’s novel is among other things a craggy poetic ode to Newfoundland, a land of climatic extremes where most of the story is set. It is a place where the wind howls out ghost stories and spirits materialize through the fog, where people believed to have a sixth sense are referred to as sensitive, and where the local restaurants serve quirky dishes like seal-flipper pie.

But as precisely as the movie conjures Newfoundland’s majestic but intimidating physical landscape and folkways (underscored with propulsive Celtic pipe and drum music that suggests an austere echo of the score for “Titanic”) it fails to deliver the essence of Ms. Proulx’s novel, which is the odyssey of an ugly, beaten-down outsider. That essence lies in knotty, hard-bitten language that renders the everyday world in prose that flirts with the grotesque and phantasmagoric to portray existence as a savage, rustic comedy.

The difference between Ms. Proulx’s salty, tragicomic book, and Mr. Hallstrom’s impressionistic gloss, is in a nutshell the difference between the author’s description of the hapless protagonist, Quoyle, and Kevin Spacey’s warm and fuzzy portrait of this character, whom Ms. Proulx paints as a physically grotesque pariah. With his “great damp loaf of a body,” Quoyle is “buried under a casement of flesh,” Ms. Proulx writes. “Head shaped like a Crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.”

There’s nothing freakish about Mr. Spacey’s Quoyle, a timid, sad-eyed oaf who mumbles in a soft, hesitant voice as he shuffles through the film, begging for sympathy like a lost dog. The movie’s Quoyle is almost handsome in a doughy sort of way. We are aware at all times that the star is acting with a capital A, suppressing his natural inclination toward intellectual sarcasm to project the saintly, victimized pathos of a well-meaning idiot savant. The performance, although technically skillful, is far too calculated and self-conscious for the actor to disappear into his role.

Mr. Hallstrom brings to the project his ever-likable hallmarks: an unfailingly warm-hearted humanism, a special affinity for children, and his soft-edged cinematic lyricism with a visionary edge. But try as he might, he can find no visual images to correspond to the tone and flavor of Ms. Proulx’s idiosyncratic language.

What he has made of the book is a sweet and salty tone poem: a seamlessly woven, handsomely illustrated digest of the novel’s characters and incidents, tricked out with hallucinatory flashbacks. On the screen personal horror stories that leap off the page melt into folksy yarns that the movie meticulously strings together without their adding up to much, despite the deployment of visual leitmotifs. The final product is soft at the center, a rustic cinematic greeting card.

In brief the story of “The Shipping News” follows Quoyle and his young daughter, Bunny, from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he works as an ink man for the presses of the local newspaper, to Newfoundland following the deaths of his parents and the accidental drowning of his savage floozy of a wife, Petal (Cate Blanchett). At the behest of his father’s half-sister Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench), who shows up at his door to collect her brother’s ashes, Quoyle repairs to Newfoundland to begin a new life in the long-abandoned and dilapidated family cottage that is anchored to the earth by cables.

Quoyle, who has no journalistic experience, is offered a job reporting the shipping news column for a local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, and shows a budding knack for writing catchy headlines. He becomes involved with Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), a widow with a slow-witted son, who runs the local day-care center. Bit by bit Quoyle learns of his brutal family history, which includes piracy, murder, incest and rape. As he absorbs a series of ugly family secrets, he begins to heal from a lifetime of abuse and rejection and to gain a tentative sense of having a place in the world.

Where the novel is stubbornly unsentimental in its depiction of Quoyle’s life and hard times, Mr. Hallstrom’s camera beautifies everything it beholds. Even in an early scene in which Quoyle’s sadistic father forces him to swim by throwing him into the water and watching him nearly drown, the boy’s traumatic immersion takes place in a haze of golden bubbles. And in a bit of eye- catching trickery, the boy, while still underwater, morphs into a man. Quoyle grows up with a lifelong terror of water. The story is punctuated with recurrent nightmare images of submersion, but they are too pretty to be frightening.

Although the misconception of Mr. Spacey’s character gives “The Shipping News” a hopelessly mushy center, the surrounding performances lend the movie some ballast. Dame Judi’s Agnis and Ms. Moore’s Wavey are finely shaded portraits of spirited, feisty women concealing grievous emotional wounds under a hard- bitten surface. As Tert Card, The Gammy Bird’s managing editor, who becomes Quoyle’s implacable foe, Pete Postlethwaite creates a wonderfully sly study of a proud small-time grievance collector. Best of all is Ms. Blanchett’s Petal, a lighted stick of raging sexual dynamite.

But with the novel compressed into a movie of less than two hours, none of the supporting cast has enough screen time to emerge as a full- blown character. “The Shipping News” is finally too efficient for its own good. Instead of giving you the book, it leaves you with the unfulfilled sense of having leafed through an elegant, studiously captioned photo essay of the same material.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

Slant magazine

The best thing than can be said about Lasse Hallström’s The Shipping News is that it’s considerably less brow-beating than The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. Robert Nelson Jacobs is loyal to E. Annie Proulx’s original text: Petal (Cate Blanchett) still can’t make an Alabama Slammer; hubbie Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) is the poster child for the pussy-whipped; and closeted  skeletons are raring to cut loose. The film’s first quarter is unwatchable as hell-fire harpy Petal is transformed into a gum-smacking student of Marisa Tomei’s My Cousin Vinny ilk. Proulx’s once-ghoulish witch takes the town by slut-storm while the pathetic Quoyle stays home with their baby Bunny. Spacey can do pathetic (however intentional) but Hallström’s Quoyle is nothing more than a child who confuses sex for love. Seemingly stripped of Proulx’s sad stoicism, Quoyle is now a mere victim to Hallström’s heavy-handed water imagery. Silly special-effects morphing give way to egregious flashbacks that set up Quoyle’s hydrophobia (his father was an unconventional swimming instructor).

Petal goes to sleep with the angels, Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) comes to town and Quoyle decides to find his family roots in Newfoundland. Hallström is best when doing the quirk thing; there’s a sweet-natured, matter-of-fact humanism to the film’s oddball moments. Quoyle snags a job as a reporter at the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, covering the shipping news. Ghoulish discoveries (a headless body, its rolling head) are played for laughs while the film’s learning lessons are never ham-fisted. Hallström’s characters are helpless and disconnected; all are in need of human contact though victims to a land that seems to portend only death. Hallström deftly free-floats between his stories: Quoyle moves up the occupational ladder; finds love with Wavey (Julianne Moore), mother of a mentally-challenged Harry Potter; and gets the lowdown on the Quoyle past via a creepy, blabbermouth uncle.

Agnis is a relatively loose cannon, a shining example of Hallström’s awkward jitterbug between quirky and flat-out melodramatic. When skeletons fall out of their closets, explanatory flashbacks become difficult to swallow, shamelessly at odds with more humorous-minded coping rituals. Hallström’s tonality is wildly uneven. The film works best when absurd (see the crazy drunk bitch scene), underachieving when it goes ghost-hunting (as a thriller, the film is all hot air). Hallström is an obvious visualist. Quoyle’s computer screensaver is underwater-themed while car accidents turn into bloody Petal spottings; in effect, the humanity of Quoyle’s accident column is flagrantly set up. The score and accents conjure images of Leprechauns searching for Enya and her Lucky Charms but Hallström’s rendering of place and time is quaint and evocative even if the film, as a whole, moves at the speed of a glacial ice flow. **1/2 out of ****.


Ed Gonzalez © slant magazine, 2001.


The Filmiliar Cineaste For most stories to work you need a main character that you’re sympathetic toward so that you care about what happens to him, and who is active enough to ensure your interest. This is in doubt here as it deals with a man over whom people walk, who is so modest and ambitionless as to think a job as an “inkman” on a newspaper’s press is a life’s fulfillment. Things come his way through the actions and motivations of others and yet, as conceived and written in a 1994 novel by E. Annie Proulx, you are vitally interested in his  development and growth despite the brooding quality of his progress. In as challenging a role as any that Kevin Spacey has taken on, but for a totally different reason, he plays Quoyle, an amorphously shaped nerd living in upstate New York. One wonders how he can possibly wind up with the whirlwind party girl, Petal, (the wily and resourceful Cate Blanchet) but in a case of opposites attracting and, for a brief moment, fulfilling each others missing side, they do. They marry and have a child whom they call Bunny.

Despite Petals flightiness Quoyle remains fascinated and in love with Petal (taking too much meaning from simple sex) and raises Bunny on his own. But even he, so slow to anger, is outraged by Petal, who by this time is little more than a barroom whore, brings home one of her lovers. As inevitable as day following night, she leaves Quoyle and, for the first time showing any interest in Bunny, takes her along. A fatal car accident on that journey takes Petal’s life and Quoyle is first amazed that Bunny wasn’t found in the car with her and then mortified when he learns that she had sold her daughter to a slave trader for several thousand dollars. Quoyle rescues his daughter and attempts to return to his life as best he can. His aunt Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench) shows up for the funeral and convinces him to join her in a return to their family home in the small fishing outport of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland.

When they arrive the family home, on a promontory overlooking the sea, is in bad repair but structurally still sound. The winds are so fierce in these districts that it’s lashed down by cables. As they proceed to rebuild the place, which is a stark metaphor for their lives and history, Quoyle sets out to find a job, his first call at the local newspaper, The Shipping News. Hardly running a press requiring an inkman, and largely because of his very well known family name, he’s hired on by editor Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite) with the blessings of owner Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn) as a reporter. His growth in this job parallels the growth he is to experience as a person and is the heart of the story. He asks about a woman he sees walking along the road and is told about Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), who turns out to be the director of her own day care center for young children. She has a retarded son and as mysterious a past as Quoyle himself, the details of both being revealed slowly and at a steady, unlively pace, as the town and the character of the man themselves.

Things don’t get explosive in Kinnick-Claw but the history of the people is thick and impenetrable. In fact, E. Annie Proulx’s book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994, probably for the style of the story as much as for her style of writing. Defying a reasonable translation to film, director Lasse Hallstrom has probably pulled off a nomination with his adaptation and he should be considered for it for his flawless casting, as well. He has certainly proven his abilities in adapting novels, as he did with John Irving’s “Cider House Rules” and Joanne Harris’ “Chocolat”. Whatever else might be said about Hallstrom, he has demonstrated an exquisite taste for good literature and great respect for its imagery, its metaphors and other essential qualities to be preserved in his film versions. A book is safe in his directorial hands. The name “Quoyle” in fact is related to “coil”, as in rope. Rope and the art of knot tying is a vital part of fishing and a boatman’s life. In the book, each chapter is headed with a different knot with its purpose outlined. It’s a vital image for the seaside place so exposed to the sea and its unforgiving nature, and the film conveys this effectively to set and nurture the moods. “The Shipping News”, given its literary nature, stressing character as its very reason for being, might be a hard sell for a wide audience.

It’s a film that is likely to appeal to an audience that reads as much as it goes to films. It’s also likely to appeal to the members of the Motion Picture Academy in sufficient numbers to produce more than one award nomination. And “Best Picture” is certainly a possibility. In other words, it’s more likely to be a critical success than a boxoffice hit.


Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), the zhlubby, browbeaten protagonist of Lasse Hallstrom’s affecting, if somewhat ungainly, version of Annie Proulx’s novel, isn’t your typical movie hero. After the death of his brazen, unfaithful wife (Cate Blanchett), this born loser sets off with his daughter and aunt (Judi Dench) to start a new life in frigid, faraway Newfoundland, the home of his ancestors. “The Shipping News” is the story of his rebirth, his discovery of self-worth. Like the best of Hallstrom’s films, “My Life as a Dog” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” it has a fresh, uncondescending appreciation of the lives of people far outside the mainstream.

This was not a novel screaming to be made into a movie. You can feel screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs struggling to stuff too many goodies into a short space. The seams show. But the dialogue has wit and home-cooked flavor. The characters — Dench’s life-hardened Aunt Agnis, Julianne Moore’s Wavey, a widowed single mom, and the cranky staff of the village newspaper where Quoyle gets work as a reporter — resist stereotype. Initially, Spacey seems miscast, overplaying his character’s hapless naivete. But as Quoyle begins to discover his future by coming to grips with his family’s dark past, both Spacey and the movie hit their stride. “The Shipping News” has a quiet sense of community, a wry, unsentimental sweetness, that grows on you. It’s a patient movie for impatient times. ***

David Ansen

©2001 Newsweek, Inc.


From Coming Attractions:

October 18, 2001… Our first review of The Shipping News has arrived, and in it our scooper gives the picture a positive recommendation.

“I attended a preview screening of the film (according to the marketing guy there, it was the first one) a few weeks ago in NYC. The film is really good. Basically, its the story of Kevin Spacey’s belated awakening. The storyline is a little less standard than most Hollywood fare, and there are some excellently concieved shots and scenes. Most notably: Spacey capsizing in the water after discovering something nasty there, Moore and Spacey’s first meeting in the schoolyard, and all the scenes with Scott Glenn and the guy who plays Peter Pretty.

“Spacey, Moore and Dench are, as usual, excellent. The rest of the cast is also great, especially Scott Glenn. However, Cate Blanchett is wasted here in a one-dimensional role which really takes more from the feel of the film than it gives to it.

“Its a bit of a love story, a bit of a ghost story, and a lot of a family story. I’d spend money to see it. These days, that’s saying something.”

[Review sent in by Matthew.]

From Dark Horizons: “The Shipping News” – A Review by ‘Martin Snorese’ (Negative, Frequent Minor Spoilers) Just came back from a screening of The Shipping News. HUGE disappointment. This film was so bad, if it were released in Afghanistan, I’m sure the producers would be stoned to death. In all fairness, the movie started pretty good then completely fell apart after 15 minutes. It starts off quirky, and funny, then it turns into a really safe, boring, confusing movie. Lots of unnecessary subplots, an underdeveloped, chemistryless romance (with Julianne Moore), endless flashbacks, and dream sequences. Kevin “the heterosexual” Spacey plays Quoyle, the most sympathetic protaganist in the history of film. Within the first 10 minutes we see his father throw him in a lake (he was teaching him to swim, the hard way), his blatantly unfaithful wife (Cate Blanchett) not only leaves him, but sells his oldest daughter to a blackmarket adoption agency. (I swear, I told my girlfriend that the next scene would show him volunteering at an animal shelter). Quoyle later learns that his wife died in a car accident. He moves to New Foundland with his aunt (Judi Dench, who seems to play the same exact role in every Miramax film she’s been in) where he starts to write a Shipping News column. I’ll spare you more plot details. Spacey turns in the worst performance of his career. He doesn’t play weak very well. He plays Quoyle like he plays Buddy Ackerman in the final scene from Swimming With Sharks (puppy dog eyes, shoulders drooping). Is it me, or are all of Spacey’s post Best Actor Oscar, movies unwatchable? Kind of like what happened to Nic Cage. (Now that I think of it, this movie felt alot like Capt. Corelli’s Mandolin). The other performances are ok, considering what they had to work with. The film ran over 2hours (but felt much much longer). This film is in need of some serious editing. If I were Miramax I’d take my chances with Gangs Of New York (whatever problems it may have, it’s GOT to be better than this) as my Oscar hopeful next year.