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The Shipping News

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Shipping News

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Rated: R
RunTime: 117 Minutes
Release Date: January 2002
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Scott Glenn, Pete Postlethwaite, Jason Behr

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Planes chartered by organizations to fly from JFK to Europe often carried insufficient fuel for a nonstop flight. The refueling site of choice was Gander or Goose Bay in Labrador, part of Newfoundland, which is in turn an area of such barren wilderness that you wouldn't think there could be dramatic stories unfolding in any of them. But darned if Newfoundland was not the scene of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Shipping News," by E. Annie Proulx, which as adapted into a screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs ("Chocolat") proves to have resonance beyond a mere story of one person's journey in search of a new life. In directing the picture, Lasse Hallstrom uses his talent for evoking warm-hearted performances from children that he employed sixteen years ago in the Swedish production "My Life as a Dog--which like the current offering deals with a 12-year-old shipped off to live in a rural village. Like "Life as a Dog," "The Shipping News" is alternately comic and poignant, mixing wisecracks with poetry, tragedy with light moments to form an intriguing two-hour tale of a man desperate to turn his life around and learning how to do it by changing his venue. There is quite a bit of Newfoundland culture in the movie--which was filmed both there and in nearby Nova Scotia--an area which according to some historians bears a similar antipathy to the federal government in Ottawa as does the province of Quebec.

They say that you can't really change your life by traveling or even by moving permanently to a new area, but Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) successfully subverts that theory. Had he remained for the rest of his days in the dull upstate New York town of Poughkeepsie, he would have spent his entire life in quiet desperation. Quoyle (which is an old English spelling of "coil" and has particular resonance in the area of his forbears) looks half alive working on a Poughkeepsie newspaper but in the grinding area of newsprint rather than creatively as a journalist.. When he meets a fast-moving, fast-talking hustler, Petal (Cate Blanchett, who is unrecognizable in this role), he is flattered that any woman would pay attention to him despite their polar differences in character. After a disastrous marriage that produces one child, Bunny (played by triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer as a 12-year-old), Quoyle reacts favorably to a suggestion by his visiting Canadian aunt Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench) and follows her to the last of his people in Newfoundland where he joins a quirky group of newspaper people as a journalist to report on shipping news for the local rag, meets a striking woman, Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), and almost imperceptively changes from a loser who simply reacts to outside forces to a self-assured man with roots in a salt-of-the-earth community. He gains stature by unfolding a number of community secrets as well, one involving murder and another the faking of a man's death.

If we are to follow the ideology of novelist E. Annie Proulx, there's no place like home and by home she means the land of one's ancestors. You get the impression that she believes anyone who resides anyplace else is in the diaspora, much like the Jewish people who live anywhere but in the land of Israel. Kevin Spacey plays against type--not the smart-ass, witty and sardonic suburban resident of "American Beauty" or the displaced but hardly nerdy visitor from the planet K-PAX, but a man who is abused first his own father whose idea of teaching his son how to swim is to throw him into the water and hope for the best and who, as is brought out during the narrative, is guilty of an abominable act.

In fact, much of the picture's theme revolves around the notion that all of us have secrets, skeletons in the closet which affect us all our lives in much the way that a nation's history has bearing on its present position in the world. Oliver Stapleton's camera captures the rugged Newfoundland shores, a spartan community which, when filmed from a distance embraces a warm-and-fuzzy collection of wooden houses that could have come out of a Grimm fairy tale. The story is enlivened at unpredictable moments as when Quoyle produces a ten-page report on some shipping news only to be told by his boss, Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn) that "If I wanted 'War and Peace' I would have hired Shakespeare." Hallstrom evokes solid performances from the ensemble, particularly from Glenn and from Rhys Ifans and Pete Postlethwaite as Quoyle's fellow workers on the newspaper. Judi Dench looks nothing like her character in the film "Iris" and knocks out a strong appearance as Quoyle's wronged and vindictive aunt.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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