The Shipping News Review
Occasionally, certain films seem to cry out for certain pieces of music to be included on the soundtrack, so perfectly would the songs suit the film's plot, themes or general atmosphere. A good example would be Vanilla Sky, which would have worked perfectly with the Beatles' A Day in the Life or Strawberry Fields Forever, both songs reflecting the film's mix of fantasy and reality. Likewise, The Shipping News, a film about the problems of emotional connection that uses the metaphor of ships and water to illustrate this, might well have used Nick Cave's The Ship Song on the soundtrack, rather than Christopher Young's tiresomely cliched Celtic warblings. However, such a disappointment is typical of the film, a handsome but inert 'quality' production from the Miramax stable with enough flaws to scupper the most seaworthy of vessels.
The plot, as adapted from E.Annie Proulx's novel, is simple enough. Dan Quoyle (Spacey) is a middle-aged loner, haunted by memories of an abusive childhood, who is struggling with his daily life until he meets the vivacious Petal Bear (Blanchett). Unfortunately, Petal, despite being the mother of his daughter, is somewhat morally lax, which leads to her eventual death. Struggling to come to terms with this, Quoyle, his daughter and his Aunt Agnis (Dench) relocate to their family home in Newfoundland, where Quoyle meets such local characters as Tert X. Card (Postlethwaite), the editor of the local newspaper, Jack Buggitt (Glenn), its proprietor, Beaufield Nutbeem (Ifans), an Englishman stranded by misfortune, and Wavey Prowse (Moore), a feisty single mother. Unsurprisingly, most of the above have deep, dark secrets, all of whih Quoyle will discover on the way to his emotional rehabilitation.
After the twin artistic disasters of The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, both of which were overrated adaptations of unspectacular books with plenty of hideously miscast actors, Hallstrom has made a film that, thankfully, has improved somewhat on those two, aided by a cast who do at least work as an ensemble, rather than a procession of star turns. Unfortunately, he is also the wrong director for the film. The appeal of the novel lies less in the plot, which frequently verges on the absurd, and more in the style; of course, this is practically impossible to convey cinematically. It doesn't help that the various events covered, which include child slavery, incestuous rape, necrophilia, decapitation, characters returning from the dead and ancient curses, occasionally feel so overwrought as to be quite funny, albeit unintentionally; that, coupled with the ridiculous character names, give the film the feeling of a black comedy, albeit made by a director who doesn't understand that he is making one. Had David Lynch or Todd Solondz directed the film, we might have been in for a real treat, but, unfortunately, we have been denied a truly uproarious experience.
The cast is fantastic on paper, but works less well on film. Spacey's forte is playing cynical, intelligent men who understand a situation better than those he is surrounded by; unfortunately, Quoyle is the polar opposite of this, meaning that his performance is much less good than much of his recent work, with the gradual evolution of a soul inside Quoyle hardly convincing. Moore doesn't really register until towards the end, Dench is saddled with a weak American accent, and Blanchett steals the show utterly in the ten minutes or so she's on screen by being the only character who actually seems to enjoy themselves; it's as if Hallstrom took her aside, played loud rock music to her, and said 'I want you to bring this kind of vibe to the film'. The supporting cast are all fine, with Ifans enjoyable in a far more restrained part than usual and Glenn suitably taciturn and moody.
Worse films have certainly been made, and this is reasonably intelligent and literate stuff on the whole, with some enjoyable scenes and characters. However, given the sheer quality of talent here, it's a disappointment, and Miramax's strategy of making such lazy Oscar-bait films surely must cease, given the failure of this at both the box office and at the nominations stage. The reason why The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love and Pulp Fiction all did so well was because they were thoughtful, sophisticated films that were made by writers and directors with genuine flair and intelligence, unlike the ultimately mediocre concoction that Hallstrom has made here. A disappointment.