The Shipping News, adapted from E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same title, is a refreshingly unstarry and idiosyncratic approach to the uplifting Hollywood movie genre so excelled at by Miramax. It is also one that shakes off much of the schmaltz employed by director Lasse Hallstrom on his last movie, Chocolat, leaving a more realistic, windswept and personal story than any of his films has since My Life As A Dog.
The story’s lead character, Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), is a third-rate man in every sense, someone for whom the word Failure was surely invented. A succession of dreary, dead-end jobs and a failed marriage to a tempestuous wife, Petal (Cate Blanchett), are the hallmarks of his life. She constantly calls him boring and has no interest in mothering their daughter, Bunny, all the while philandering with an assortment of other men. Then, one day, Petal is cut from a car wreck, already dead, leaving Quoyle to somehow bring up his daughter Bunny on his own.
When his aunt (Judi Dench) comes round to help out, she suggests a return to the Quoyle’s ancestral homeland in Newfoundland and a journey of endearing self-discovery and healing begins on a windswept, cold and seemingly inhospitable island. The Quoyle house, hauled across ice to a deserted point and lashed to the ground to stop it blowing away, takes on a character of its own in the film, serving as a reminder of an unnecessary sub-plot of Quoyle history involving incest, piracy and torture which Hallstrom is at a loss to take anywhere. It also serves to suggest that Quoyle doesn’t understand everything that has happened to him, or indeed why he is, but he sets about righting old wrongs anyway as best he can.
As well as the house, the quirky community in which Quoyle finds himself features some off-beat human characters, nearly all of whom have a hands-on interest in fishing and a healthy respect for the unpredictable waters around their island. Signed up as a journalist at the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, Quoyle begins to realise that he can after all do well if given a chance. The paper’s owner (Scott Glenn) expects him to know what he’s doing because of Quoyle family history, without paying too much attention to Quoyle’s protestations to the contrary. The paper’s managing editor (Pete Postlethwaite) sets out to undermine the new hand, but Quoyle begins to realise that some people do appreciate him for who he is. Gradually, Quoyle’s soul is rehabilitated, aided and abetted by his colleagues, his daughter, his aunt and new love interest Wavey (Julianne Moore), a widow who lives with her own personal demons.
While Quoyle is hardly made of the material normally found in leading men, we find ourselves interested in him, hoping he gets a break from the unfortunate hand life has dealt him, willing his romance with Wavey to work and hoping he finds his feet in his new home. It is a testament to Spacey’s virtuouso interpretation of the role of Quoyle that we think in this way. An actor normally given to lippy, witty character parts, Spacey here underlines his incredible range and subtle grasp of the finer points of even the unlikliest of people. Quoyle starts as the sort of person you wouldn’t want to live next door to and ends up an entirely revitalised human being, and Spacey’s subtlety is the main reason why the transformation – and thus the film – works.
Hallstrom, fabled as a director actors like to work with, shot the film on location in Newfoundland and the cast lived in the same building during filming. Rhys Ifans, playing one of Quoyle’s journalist colleagues, told us that Pete Postlethwaite, Scott Glenn and he shared a fridge and got to know each other well over the course of filming – and this cast bonding shows. We believe that they are all part of a community and have known each other for years – and at no point do we suspect they are actors from Wales, Canada, the UK and the USA.
Unfortunate forays into historical drama aside, The Shipping News is a feelgood film with enough textured acting from all of the leads to make it an engrossing human drama too.