Director Lasse Hallstrom’s last two films, “The Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat,” were glossy, pretty-looking pictures about gentle people with gentle souls. “The Shipping News” is no different in that respect.
It also perpetuates Hallstrom’s tendency to treat emotionally huge issues in a very non-huge way. “Cider House Rules” had abortion, “Chocolat” had spousal abuse (one frying pan to the head, and the problem is solved!), and now “Shipping News” has a brief flashback in which we learn someone was the victim of incest rape at age 12, and that it resulted in a pregnancy. But it’s all better now, and we need never mention it again!
(There’s also exactly one reference to a child having been sold to a black-market adoption agency. One line, nothing more.)
Maybe Hallstrom is just choosing the wrong books to base his movies on, and maybe his current screenwriter of choice, Robert Nelson Jacobs (who also adapted “Chocolat”), lacks the discernment to know which plot points to keep and which ones to cut because he can’t devote full attention to them. I haven’t read the book “The Shipping News” is based on, but I suspect the incest-rape thing is given more gravity there than it is here.
Thematically, it’s a relatively important point. Everyone in this movie has a past that haunts them, and everyone has to overcome those obstacles to build a better future. The protagonist, an unambitious New England native named Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), fell in love with the wrong woman, fathered a child, and now finds himself in the tiny Newfoundland town that his “people” came from.
There he meets a whole host of quirky, funny small-town people, including Wavey (Julianne Moore), who has a mildly retarded little boy and no husband to speak of. There’s also Quoyle’s aunt Agnis (Judi Dench), who dragged him here in the first place and who has a number of personal issues to deal with, not the least of which is a penchant for stealing people’s ashes. Oh, and every single townsperson has some trouble in his past, many of these centering around boats and drownings, which are prevalent in the wintery fishing-centered community.
Family is important to the movie. Quoyle is never given a first name, presumably because, as the locals suppose, he is a Quoyle, nothing more or less. Family can also be the greatest source of our problems, though, as is also noted in the film.
The movie begins brusquely, thanks primarily to Cate Blanchett as the crass, flighty woman Quoyle has an affair with. Once she’s out of the picture, it’s remarkably uncynical, and altogether pleasant. Which is sort of the problem: Some of the elements should be a lot more unpleasant than they are. Aside from being more fair and mature that way, it would also give the film some weight. As it is, it has very little resonance.
Kevin Spacey is characteristically excellent as Quoyle, supported ably by Julianne Moore and Judi Dench, as well as Scott Glenn, Rhys Ifans and Pete Postlethwaite as his co-workers at the tiny newspaper he writes for. No, there’s nothing wrong with the performances here. It’s the whitewashed writing and superficial directing that keep this decent movie from being a truly great one.
B- (; )