Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Lasse Hallström

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Pete Postlethwaite, Rhys Ifans, Gordon Pinsent, Scott Glenn, Jason Behr

MPAA Rating: (for some language, sexuality and disturbing images)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 12/25/01

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The Shipping News has a split personality. It is so intent on seeming like an old-fashioned movie, with old-fashioned storytelling, that it betrays the off-beat material. On this level, the movie has an inherent flaw that it cannot overcome. Director Lasse Hallström has made similar attempts before in The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. Both of those movies were overly simplified, and only the latter should have been. This movie suffers from the same simplification. It features elements of fatalistic and cultural superstitions, but they are laced with irony and self-awareness. It cannot decide whether the characters are the stuff of comedy or tragedy, and while in many cases they can be both, in this case there’s no basis for either element. When the movie wants us to laugh at its characters, it goes straight for punchline, and when it wants them to be tragic, it immediately attempts the catharsis. The simple build of comedy and meticulous build of tragedy are missing and so, in effect, is the movie’s heart.

The movie follows a simple-minded man named Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), whose father essentially drove all the resolve out of him. He works for the Poughkeepsie News as an ink-man. It’s the best job he’s ever had. He meets a woman named Petal (Cate Blanchett) at a gas station after she storms off from another man, and they soon have a child together. He’s left to raise their daughter (named Bunny) alone, as Petal goes off to find new male-friends. One day Petal takes their daughter to go on a trip with one of her new friends, and Quoyle finds a message from his parents who have decided to kill themselves. Later Petal is discovered dead after the boyfriend drove their car of a bridge, but Bunny is fine. Well, as fine as anyone sold on the black market can be. With perfect timing, Quoyle’s aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) appears at his door to pay last rites to her brother’s ashes. Quoyle decides to take Bunny and go with his aunt to Quoyle Point, Newfoundland to the family’s ancestral house on a cliff, tied down with ropes to keep it from either blowing away or losing its symbolic meaning (I guess old family homes aren’t drenched in symbolism to begin with).

The movie waters down much of its eccentric material in the name of being old-fashioned, but when handling a story like this, that kind of style cannot be achieved. I may have liked the film if it had simply made a choice, but we cannot see that film here. There’s either a modern tone strangling the deceptively classy style or an old-fashioned mindset hindering the whimsy. You feel something inherently sad about the people who live in the harsh cold and seem surrounded by death. The local newspaper, where Quoyle eventually works, covers a car accident (almost always lethal) in each issue, and fishermen go off to die, even though they know it’s bound to happen some day. John Millington Synge wrote a short play called "Riders to the Sea" about an Island off of Ireland where people regularly go off to sea, never to return. They continue to do it, simply because they don’t know any other way it could be. Watching the movie I was reminded of this strange fatalistic superstition, and I know this town must have a similar sort of drive. The movie only briefly touches upon something remotely resembling this tragedy. The tragedies that the movie studies are developed only slightly more.

The proceedings are quite conventional, but on a technical level, they succeed. The cinematography by Oliver Stapleton is picturesque in capturing the landscape of Newfoundland. The movie is full of sweeping vistas shot from afar. It feels like an old-fashioned movie, which of course simply demonstrates the movie’s primary flaw. The refined work thrives on its own merits, though. The cast is first-rate, but they are unfortunately subject to incomplete characters. Kevin Spacey finally turns in the Spacey performance I had been waiting for—one void of sarcasm. I wish he had saved it for a better role. Quoyle is understandably dimwitted, but that seems to be the extent of his character. Character development in the movie is short-sighted. It tries to add depth when the circumstances of the story call for it. Julianne Moore appears in the movie as a widowed mother, and her only recognizable trait is that she is in the movie to be a love interest. Judi Dench is given the role of the strange relative with something hidden in her past, but that revelation only comes into play during one key scene. It seems to disappear after that, lest we begin to feel disturbed by what has just been presented.

The Shipping News simply doesn’t work. It has moments of individual accomplishment, but as a whole, the movie is fatally flawed. It shows us something unique, and then it tries to make it as conventional as possible. There are two movies here, and I must admit that I found the more unusual aspects of the tale intriguing. If only the style had complemented them.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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