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The Shipping News

As ungainly as its central, befuddled character, "The Shipping News" never quite finds its own internal compass. Director Lasse Hallstrom's and scribe Robert Nelson Jacobs' adaptation of a sad, failed American rediscovering himself seems to be playing the author's music, but the team behind "Chocolat" only occasionally captures the story's essential tones of absurd tragedy and comedy.

As ungainly as its central, befuddled character, “The Shipping News” never quite finds its own internal compass. Director Lasse Hallstrom’s and scribe Robert Nelson Jacobs’ adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s beloved novel of a sad, failed American rediscovering himself in Newfoundland seems to be playing the author’s music, but like a string quartet that plays a half-beat off, the team behind “Chocolat” only occasionally captures the story’s essential tones of absurd tragedy and comedy. Certain alterations made to the book’s characters and situations, designed to build suspense, become artificial and are delivered without the kind of conviction that would justify the changes. Markedly well-cast, with the glaring exception of Kevin Spacey as the tale’s unsure hero, Quoyle, Nor’easter drama’s deliberate pace — making it feel more like Hallstrom’s European work than his Yank pics — and characters who ever so gradually reveal themselves will be appreciated by a dedicated but far smaller aud than Miramax must be hoping for during its annual high holiday season.

Though some have doubted, during the eight long years it took for the story to go from page to screen, that there was a movie in a novel so resolutely irreducible and stuffed with seeming asides that are actually essential to the story, the movie is clearly the work of sincere artists faced with a hefty task. Too hefty, it turns out, but Hallstrom’s connection to the material is direct and unforced: Quoyle, a man forever uncomfortable in his own skin, fits nicely alongside such past Hallstrom oddities as Gilbert Grape.

It is, rather, Spacey who is in alien territory, at least 150 pounds lighter than he should be for a character who should have rolls of fat and a huge chin, and working much too hard to make up the difference in a sleepy dialect, a mannered, sad facial expression and accident-prone behavior. The actor does everything he can, but seldom has apt casting seemed so crucial.

Pic went through 11th-hour alterations between the print screened for critics in early December and the final release version. Six minutes have been excised, while Spacey’s added first-person voiceover narration now bookends the tale. Trimming is mostly within scenes and — with one glaring exception — doesn’t intrude on the drama. But neither does it eliminate problems that are part and parcel of the film’s fabric.

Script ties Quoyle’s problems to his abusive father, Guy (John Dunsworth), who pushes his 12-year-old son into the water, where he nearly drowns. A remarkably telling and haunting special effect shows young Quoyle’s face underwater, slowly evolving into the 36-year-old adult, still underwater, only now robotically slaving away at the Poughkeepsie News.

Things happen to Quoyle — precisely what makes him a fascinating novel character but far more of a problem for a movie — and suddenly, the tarted-up and self-centered Petal (Cate Blanchett) happens to him, splitting from a guy and getting into Quoyle’s car. Before he knows it, Quoyle’s in love, fathers a daughter, Bunny, and is housekeeping while Petal openly sleeps around.

Blanchett is a burst of spirited fire whose departure after less than 10 minutes produces a dramatic vacuum the movie never fills. She is so fierce and all-consuming that the viewer never stops for a moment to wonder what Quoyle is doing with her, or she with him.

Things really go downhill, however, when Quoyle’s terminally ill parents leave a phone message announcing their joint suicide. That’s followed by Petal’s taking off with Bunny (played by triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer) but dying in a car crash. Meanwhile, Quoyle’s crusty Yankee aunt, Agnis (Judi Dench) stops by with condolences for his dead parents.

Agnis is on her way to their family’s old haunts and, needing to find a new life, Quoyle and the rescued Bunny venture with her by ship to the rocky remoteness of Newfoundland and the town of Killick-Claw, which lenser Oliver Stapleton, using a desaturated palette, views as an imposing, daunting outpost. The Quoyle clan left here 50 years ago, and its lonely house still stands, but decrepit and barely livable.

Quoyle quickly lands a reporting job for local weekly rag the Gammy Bird, run by tough but fair publisher Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn) and overseen by insecure, contentious editor Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite).

While Proulx applied irony to the fact that Quoyle has to report on all the things he abhors — water, car crashes, pressures — they’re mostly handled here with a less-than-effective dramatic solemnity. Still, pic’s newsroom snaps with characters, including Brit Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans) and aging Billy Pretty (Gordon Pinsent).

Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), walking along the road with her brain-damaged son, Herry (Will McAllister), catches Quoyle’s eye, but his first two encounters with her are buffeted with awkward gaffes.

At the same time, several other story elements are juggled, all of them leaving Quoyle on the sidelines as a kind of spectator.

Jacobs’ script latches onto one incident like a kind of narrative lifejacket, since it gives Quoyle, for once, an active role. When he stumbles upon a Botterjacht, a yacht built for Hitler’s private use and owned by bitter marrieds Bayonet and Silver Melville (Larry Pine and Jeanetta Arnette), Quoyle turns it into a story that so impresses Jack that he gives the cub reporter his own boat column. Quoyle later bumps his boat into the beheaded body of what turns out to be Bayonet, almost drowning himself in the process.

This story-within-the-story provides the passive, lumpen Quoyle with some direction; however, the budding romance with Wavey is the one story strand harmed in the revised release version. A sweet moment on the shore between the pair, where they fall into a revealingly sloppy kiss, is now gone, making subsequent comments by Moore’s Wavey fairly nonsensical. At the same time, Moore’s natural warmth gives the movie a real pulse and the qualities of resiliency that inform the novel.

By the time a storm hits Killick-Claw, leading to the destruction of the Quoyle family house, it’s hard not to reflect on Billy’s journalistic advice to Quoyle for finding “the center of the story.” A center is what seems to elude the film at every juncture, and even a closing narration, as Quoyle claims that he believes “a broken man can heal,” doesn’t do enough to grasp the tale’s heart.

As usual, Hallstrom works in extremely felt sympathy with a host of fine actors. In what would seem to be a man’s world, it’s the women — Moore, Dench and especially Blanchett — who deliver many of the movie’s richest and rawest moments, from Moore’s gentle strains and Blanchett’s roving animal streak to Dench’s granite emotional boundaries, which gently break down in a marvelously quiet scene with Spacey.

Glenn, Postelthwaite, Ifans and Canadian icon Pinsent feel very much like ink-stained wretches keen to life’s absurdities, and Pinsent brings the extra texture of an inbred “Newfie” crustiness. Unlike the play of the exaggerated Minnesota dialect of “Fargo,” there’s no attempt here to stress or overplay the provincial accent, long the butt of Canadian jokes.

Tech credits push for a more severe look than is the norm in mainstream American films, with Hallstrom’s crew embracing what must have been unfriendly weather and natural elements for extra visual and aural realism. Christopher Young’s Irish-inflected score is in tune with pic’s serious mood.

The Shipping News

  • Production: A Miramax Films release and presentation of an Irwin Winkler production. Produced by Irwin Winkler, Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Leslie Holleran. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Meryl Poster. Co-producer, Diane Pokorny. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Screenplay, Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by E. Annie Proulx.
  • Crew: Camera (Deluxe (Toronto) color and prints, Moviecam widescreen), Oliver Stapleton; editor, Andrew Mondshein; music, Christopher Young; music supervisor, Randy Spendlove; production designer, David Gropman; art directors, Karen Schulz Gropman, Peter Rogness; set decorator, Gretchen Rau; costume designer, Renee Ehrlich Kalfus; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Glen Gauthier; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Michael Kirchberger; visual effects, Mill Film; special effects supervisor, Neil Trifunovich; associate producer, Stephen Dunn; assistant director, Dunn; second unit camera, Andrew Mondshien; casting, Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith, Kerry Barden. Reviewed at AMC 14 Theaters, L.A., Dec. 7, 2001, and on videotape, L.A., Dec. 18, 2001. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 111 MIN.
  • With: Quoyle - Kevin Spacey<br> Wavey Prowse - Julianne Moore<br> Agnis Hamm - Judi Dench<br> Petal - Cate Blanchett<br> Tert Card - Pete Postlethwaite<br> Jack Buggit - Scott Glenn<br> Beaufield Nutbeem - Rhys Ifans<br> Billy Pretty - Gordon Pinsent<br> Dennis Buggit - Jason Behr<br> Bayonet Melville - Larry Pine<br> Silver Melville - Jeanetta Arnette<br> EMS Officer - Robert Joy<br> Bunny - Alyssa Gainer/Kaitlyn Gainer/Lauren Gainer<br> Guy Quoyle - John Dunsworth<br> Herry Prowse - Will McAllister<br> Cousin Nolan - Marc Lawrence<br> Mavis Bangs - Nancy Beatty<br>