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A film in need of an anchor

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[Photo: Miramax]
Julianne Moore and Kevin Spacey give The Shipping News its box office draw, but the film version of the Annie Proulx novel suffers from lack of development.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 25, 2001
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The Shipping News has quirky characters and big-name power, but it is a work that lacks the glue to satisfy moviegoers.

The Shipping News is a fishing story that desperately needs a hook, a reason for all of this quaint eccentricity to matter.

Everything is appropriate about Lasse Hallstrom's version of E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, yet so little makes any lasting impact. We're watching the Reader's Digest version of events, mentioning what must be the novel's high points without an author's freedom to expound on their linking importance.
Margo Hammond: Scene is set, but acting kills the moment

The movie is shorter than it needs to be yet feels longer than it should. After nearly two hours I still wondered what the core of the film is supposed to be. A question came to mind: What event must be resolved for this movie to reach a conclusion? Certainly more than these Northern Exposure-style vignettes. Then the camera pulled back in a familiar fadeout technique and the end credits began, along with another question no film should provoke: Is that all there is?

Hallstrom has been a director of diminishing returns since What's Eating Gilbert Grape, but Miramax believes in him. He has become the studio's ace in the hole at awards time, turning popular novels such as Chocolat and The Cider House Rules into productions mounted with Oscars in mind. The Miramax publicity machine will handle the rest. The Shipping News is another halfway decent movie that audiences will be made to feel inferior about not treasuring.

Kevin Spacey turns in another quietly effective performance as Quoyle, a slumping schlub who marries a trailer tart named Petal (Cate Blanchett) and shares a daughter, Bunny. Petal escapes Quoyle's boredom by picking up men in bars. One fling leads to her fatal auto accident while Quoyle is grieving the death pact of his parents. The latter tragedy brings a visit from Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench), who convinces Quoyle to visit his roots in Newfoundland.

Quoyle isn't a seafaring kind of guy but lands a job writing the shipping news for a local fishwrap, The Gammy Bird. He has a rickety home, a craggy, supportive publisher (Scott Glenn) and an amusing feud with his editor (Pete Postlethwaite). Things brighten a bit when Quoyle meets the widow Wavey (Julianne Moore) and begins a shy romance. However, there are family secrets to uncover and a few interesting sailors to profile before things get serious, then somber.

Pieces of The Shipping News evidence Hallstrom's knack for quirks; a farewell party turning into a drunken effort to keep the fellow close, a couple sailing Hitler's yacht and Quoyle's nearly tragic discovery of a headless corpse. They're all threads in a fabric that isn't stitched properly, a ragged quilt rather than a tapestry. We can admire the parts and still not be satisfied with the whole.

Oliver Stapleton's cinematography captures the gray chill of Newfoundland in shots suitable for framing. The musical score by Christopher Young is admirably unobtrusive. And the performances are uniformly good, if a bit too precious or rough-hewn in some cases. But propping up colorful characters for a payoff then moving to another chapter is a tack fit for a book, not a movie -- at least not this one. The Shipping News is no hook, no line, just a sinker.

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The Shipping News

  • Grade: C
  • Director: Lasse Hallstrom
  • Cast: Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, Scott Glenn, Pete Postlethwaite, Rhys Ifans, Cate Blanchett
  • Screenplay: Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by E. Annie Proulx
  • Rating: R; profanity, sensuality, mature themes, disturbing images
  • Running time: 110 min.

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