Shipping News: Literary Hallstrom

What has happened to the singular vision of Lasse Hallstrom, so clearly evident in his Swedish (My Life as a Dog) and first American film (What’s Eating Gilbert Grapes?).

The Shipping News, his third consecutive film for Miramax, propagates the same compassionate humanism that defined the previous two, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat (both Oscar-nominated), but it also suffers from some of their weaknesses: the movie is soft, bland, and too literary for its own good, perhaps due to the respect for the source material.

Based on E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the tale centers on a third-rate newspaperman (played by a vastly miscast Kevin Spacey), who embarks on a self-discovery journey when he returns to his ancestors’ home on the coast of Newfoundland. What elevates the film above the routine is its visual look and female cast: Cate Blanchett as Spacey’s first wife, Julianne Moore as the new woman in his life, and especially the formidable Judi Dench as his feisty aunt. So far, Miramax has been unable to position Shipping News as a strong Oscar contender and major player, either artistically, due to mixed reviews, or commercially, due to lukewarm word-of-mouth and middling box-office.

Though based on vastly different source materials, Hallstrom’s three Miramax movies basically represent the same kind of movie–and the same kind of filmmaking. All three are set in remote, exotic places; all three are large ensemble pieces in their effort present a portrait of an eccentric community, and all three are underlined by a “sensitive” and compassionate humanism in their focus on moral awakening, caused by the characters’ coming to terms with a painful past. In The Cider House Rules, the most interesting and accomplished of the trilogy, there was an incestuous father-daughter rape; in Chocolat, a French woman was fighting a provincial, superstitious village in the 1950s, and in the contemporary Shipping News, one of the big “secrets” revealed in the last reel is a deviant siblings relationship.

One cannot take seriously author Proulx’s endorsement of the film, claiming that “the acting, intelligent attention to detail, and the stark and powerful Newfound landscape make a brilliant and unusual film that I didn’t dream could be made.” In fact, in interviews, director Hallstrom has acknowledged the “almost provokingly undramatic” nature of the material, poorly adapted to the screen by Chocolat’s scribe, Robert Nelson Jacobs.

As she demonstrated in her 1988 literary debut, Heart Songs and Other Stories, and 1992 novel, Postcards, Proulx is an idiosyncratic prose stylist with a special gift for offbeat tales about flinty souls in need of redemption. Like those novels, Shipping News tells a quirky, episodic story, which hangs together beautifully due to its memorable individual characters. The one quality Hallstrom film shares with its literary source is its visually deft sketch of Newfoundland as a remote, stark community, though he overdoes the symbolism of the flowing water. The place’s brutal wintery climate is laced with astounding sights of severe beauty, lyrically evoked by cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (who also lensed Cider House Rules) as if he were using a painter’s brush.

Having just read Proulx’s lyrical novel, I respectfully disagree with her assessment, though I have to admit that the film is not without merits once its major dramatic and casting flaw are put aside. Who wants to see Kevin Spacey, one of America’s most brilliant and wittiest actor–who can deliver smart lines in ironic manner as few performers can–playing a nebbish, a hapless, lonely upstate New Yorker, who loses everything and has to rebuild his life from scratch.

Though a bit older, Spacey plays Proulx’s 36 year old protagonist, a rambling, lumpish, unemployed journalist whose married life is as ghastly as it’s funny. In a shocking opening, that belongs more to a David Lynch than Hallstrom picture, Quoyle’s nymphomaniac wife, Petal (Blanchett in a fiery, extremely brief turn), runs off with her latest lover. She later dies in a fiery car crash, though not before selling her two daughters for $7,000 to a child pornographer to finance her adventure. Then Quoyle’s terminally ill parents announce their joint suicide in a message on his answering machine.
Almost demented with grief, Quoyle doesn’t know where to turn until his Aunt Agnis (Dench) arrives on the scene and suggests that they all move together to Killick Claw, a small fishing outpost on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, and rebuild the old family homestead which was abandoned decades ago. Inexplicably, scripter Jacobs has decided that Quoyle should have one in lieu of two daughters (as in the book), and he has also eliminated important subplots.

Reluctantly consenting to the scheme, Quoyle lucks into a job at The Gammy Bird, a spunky newspaper run by tough publisher Buggit (Glenn) and contentious editor Card (Postlethwaite), which specializes in vitriolic gossip, misprints (“typos give humor to the paper”), and wire stories on “the demented style of life in the States.” Quoyle’s editor, who has an weird knack for assigning reporters to beats that force them to confront their inner fears and anxieties, asks Quoyle to cover car wrecks and the shipping news.

Unfortunately, nothing goes according to the plan: The homestead turns out to be a lonely, shabby, uninhabitable place, deserted by the family 50 years ago, and transportation is a problem, too. With few passable roads, Quoyle has to overcome his water phobias and learn to handle a boat. Early on, it’s established that Quoyle’s father used to toss his petrified boy into brooks and lakes.

Soon it becomes clear that it’s not just the weather that’s full of surprises. Agnis has revelations to make about herself and Quoyle family history. And Killick Claw proves to have an unexpectedly cosmopolitan populace, including a wandering British journalist whom everyone likes so much that they wreck his boat when he threatens to move on.

The narrative settles into a more conventional tone as soon as Quoyle meets Wavey (Moore), a single mom with a brain-damaged kid who has to confront her own personal demons. At first their courtship is awkward, but through the bonding of their children, they become more intimate. As Quoyle’s life unfolds in Newfoundland, his–and the other residents’–past melds with the present, leading to each character undergoing some significant transformation.

Proulx flaunts her stylistic oddities with invigorating effect. Her prose is rife with outrageous character names -Diddy Shovel, Biscuit Paragon -most of which have been retained in the film. Sporadically, Hallstrom is able to convey the book’s bracing portrait of a community, which is rich in foolish quirks and generous warmth. What’s missing the most from the picture is the idiosyncratic humor and language.

Proulx coins her own vocabulary, describing a face looking “like cottage cheese clawed with a fork”? In the book, essentially a black comedy about an endearing loser, it’s Quoyle, trying to learn “if love came in other colors than the basic black of none and the red heat of obsession,” who gives it its poignant pull. The film, however, lacks a dramatic or emotional center due to Spacey’s disappointing performance–in his interpretation, Quoyle seems too distant, confused, and unappealing. In fact, the characteristics with which Quoyle is identified with, inhibition, silent rage, non-confrontation, are in diametric opposition to those that have made Spacey a distinctive actor-star. The end result is a film in which the secondary characters, particularly the women, are far more engaging and colorful than the lead.

At first glance, the text seems perfect for Hallstrom, a director who’s always dealt with odd character, finding humor and humanity in the oddest places. In Shipping News, however, the helmer shows strain in unifying the diverse human foibles and elevating the troubled emotions to a meaningful level.

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