The Shipping News (15)
HOLLYWOOD’S rush to remake past classics is almost matched by its passion for snatching up modern classics and giving them the film treatment. It’s as if Tinseltown is split into two distinct camps: the re-hash brigade and those with classic aspirations.
Yet a great novel does not necessarily a great film make, and The Shipping News is a point in fact. Crammed with top-line names, from Kevin Spacey as the urban loser who heads home to his ancestral Newfoundland roots, to Dame Judi Dench as Agnis, the elderly relative with a skeleton rattling in her closet, it should be a dead cert.
It’s not, and one has to dissect the film to uncover exactly what’s wrong.
From the outset the problems with the film are as mysterious as its premise. Spacey is Quoyle, a small-town nobody who hooks up with slattern Cate Blanchett (magnificent in an all-too-brief cameo), gets her pregnant and is left holding the baby – actually an eight-year-old girl – when she runs off with a new lover and is killed.
Left with no option but to return to the port of Killick-Claw, the grief-stricken Quoyle lands a crappy job writing the shipping news for the local rag, The Gammy Bird where, immediately, he runs foul of news editor Tert (Pete Postlethwaite).
Yet while he and Agnis fix up the ramshackle family home on a remote rocky outcrop the close-knit community gradually accepts him. He also begins to fall for feisty widow Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore).
Part romance, part adventure story and part whodunnit, The Shipping News combines detective thriller with dark, incestuous ghost story as Quoyle attempts to unravel the enigma of his family’s past.
The man responsible for sifting through such a mass of detail and cramming it all into one film is Lasse Hallstrom, the man behind Chocolat. Here his knack of threading together multiple stories largely eludes him; even the performances of Spacey, Dench (excellent as Agnis) et al can’t prevent terminal tedium from setting in.
In fact there are often so many separate plotlines running at once – Scott Glenn is the newspaper editor with a passion for the ocean; Rhys Ifans is the eccentric Brit who sailed a Chinese junk from Brazil – that Hallstrom’s steady hand wavers.
This journey of self-discovery and, ultimately, redemption rests almost equally on the shoulders of Spacey, Dench and Moore, but Hallstrom appears to be at a loss to understand how to effectively use so much A-list talent.
Consequently scenes are wasted and great performances are frittered away as Hallstrom, working from Chocolat screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs’ version of E. Annie Proulx’s novel, loses himself within half-a-dozen subplots.
Yet there are flashes of brilliance here. Blanchett totally dominates the first reel of the film and her character lingers on in the memory (just as she does in Quoyle’s) long after she has expired. Dench provides the spine of the picture, while the ensemble of Postlethwaite, Ifans, Glenn and Moore are, in their own individual ways, perfectly acceptable.
But something fails to gel and what should be an epic tale of humanity, love and the exorcism of guilt and self-loathing ultimately comes messily unstuck. Perhaps the biggest failing is that it is often dull – something that even the crystal-clear cinematography of Oliver Stapleton can’t put right.
Hallstrom strives hard to avoid clichés but The Shipping News is built on a foundation of them. Proulx’s novel was a far more complex, darker and compelling tale than the one he has delivered – proof if any were needed that the great novel = great film equation is often one filmmakers fail to understand.