Rated R - Running Time: 1:51 - Released 12/25/01

From Cider House Rules director Lasse Hallström comes The Shipping News, a complex and morose story too complex and morose for its own good. I have no doubt that the novel, by E. Annie Proulx, is a textured and fascinating tale, but Robert Nelson Jacobs's screenplay is forced to cut so many corners, we feel like we're watching the outline of a story instead of the story. Still, under Hallström's capable hand, and with actors like Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, and Julianne Moore, the film barely succeeds, simply on the basis of talent.

Spacey plays Quoyle (we never learn his first name), a newspaper inksetter from Poughkeepsie, New York, who has been convinced he's a loser ever since boyhood, when his cruel father threw him into the lake and he failed to swim. "I'm not a water person," he says several times throughout the movie. However, Quolye's life changes when he meets a fiery woman called Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett). Petal is not interested in more than one wild night of sex, but their coupling results in 1) his undying love for her, and 2) a daughter named Bunny. After several years of rearing Bunny almost single-handedly and rewarding Petal's crass and open infidelity with sincere devotion, Quoyle learns she has been killed in a car crash, and at the same time, that his own parents, bored with a stale life and a loveless marriage, have committed a double suicide. Into his misery comes Agnis Hamm (Dench), Quoyle's aunt whom he has never met. She says she's coming to pay last respects to her brother, but upon learning of the situation she invites Quoyle to come with her to Newfoundland, Canada, to the home where she grew up and where their family originated.

So the two adults and Bunny (played by triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn, and Lauren Gainer) pack up and head north, finally arriving at a small, grey, fishing town, and there, standing proudly on a rocky hill by the sea is the ancient Quoyle homestead where Agnis grew up. The place is falling apart, but they move in and begin to make repairs, and Quoyle gets a job at the local newspaper. Although he tells his boss, editor Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn) and co-workers, Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite), Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans), and Billy Pretty (Gordon Pinsent), that he's not a reporter, Buggit gives him some sparse instruction on how to write the news of the ships that come and go in the local harbor, and he reluctantly accepts the challenge. While Bunny suffers from nightmares in the creepy old house and Agnis seems obsessed by some past tragedy, Quoyle's job allows him to learn of the bloody nature of his forefathers and the evil things that went on in and around that house. He also meets a pretty local woman named Wavey Prowse (Moore), whose own past keeps her from being totally open with him even as they begin to become close.

Although this film has its moments, the story seems overcomplicated and therefore underdeveloped, as if screenwriter Jacobs (or director Hallström) was unable to decide what to cut. There are too many story threads with too little detail; it's like listening to someone with Attention Deficit Disorder. Moreover, possibly because the lighter scenes were the first to hit the cutting room floor, the film has a depressing feel, emphasized by the overall greyness of the setting. Every character seems to have suffered some horrible tragedy in the past, and the entire town is living in a kind of omnipresent gloom. Even the comparatively upbeat ending is anticlimactic. But the unquestionable talent of these actors makes it a watchable, if not overly enjoyable, diversion. ***½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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