The studio that brought us “The Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat” in the past two years has once again assembled the same unit behind those Oscar contenders for this year”s “The Shipping News.” While I may sound like a TV trailer for the Miramax released film, I am actually pointing out the pattern here. Combine a script by Robert Nelson Jacobs with direction from Lasse Hallstrom and what do you get? The answer is multiple Oscar nominations from the heartwarming Academy voters but a film that encapsulates good, while being nowhere near great.
“The Shipping News” does weave a very unique and interesting story in an intriguing, slightly foreign setting with a “who”s who?” cast of recent Oscar winners and nominees. However, I simply desire to make clear the all-too powerful advertising machine at this studio which may once again wrongly elevate a good film to status of Best Picture.
With that out of the way, let”s focus on the actual film, which is based on E. Annie Proulx”s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. While many directors and actors have tried to bring this story to the big screen, it is finally here, with Kevin Spacey tackling the role of Quoyle, a timid man who lives alone, until he meets his train-wreck of a wife, Petal (Cate Blanchett, “Elizabeth”). Quoyle falls head-over-everything in love with her, and they have a child, whom Quoyle takes care of as Petal continues to live the single life. But Petal”s antics finally catch up to her, and Quoyle is left alone with daughter, Bunny.
Concurrently, Quoyle discovers, in a remarkable scene so cold it hurts, that his parents, sick of being sick, are taking their lives. Hesitant to move on with life, his Aunt Agnis (Judy Dench, “Shakespeare in Love”) compels Quoyle to join her on a new life in a motherland of sorts for Quoyle the home of his ancestors, Newfoundland. There, Quoyle meets Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore, “Magnolia”), another single parent, and stumbles on to a job at the local paper, covering car crashes and boat movement. Quoyle cannot get over the loss of Petal, and his new-found life in Newfoundland is the antidote.
All the characters are peculiar and wonderfully acted by the extraordinary cast, assembled for a story that is unique in that it follows a character drowning his whole life, and measures success, not in the act of swimming, but simply getting his head above water. Newfoundland becomes a character of its own, creepily hanging over and embodying the actions and desires of characters.
Yet, with almost everything going for it, the film still cannot reach that pinnacle it is climbing for. “The Shipping News” trudges on dispassionately as key scenes are so underscored that their important incidents just blend in with the common. While this is the filmmaker”s intent, and it is a welcome departure from the normal draining of every emotion a script can offer, the overall feeling of “The Shipping News” ends up being one of disrespect for the story being told. This is a remarkable story and a wonderful script, but beautiful moments almost go by unnoticed.
Still, “The Shipping News” can be commended for at least putting out a worthwhile publication. The difficult story and vast characters have been obstacles for previous endeavors, but Hallstrom”s film does its best and accomplishes much to be remembered, mostly due to its wonderful performances by an immense cast and some wonderful imagery lifted from the novel.