The Shipping News Movie Review
"The Shipping News" is the kind of mundanely well-tuned movie designed for the singular purpose of winning undeserved Oscars for its award-avaricious studio, Miramax.
Its director, Lasse Hallstrom, has seen his last two middling Miramax movies ("Chocolat," "The Cider House Rules") nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning two. Its stars, Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, have eight nominations and three wins between them. The film is adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Academy-nominated screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs ("Chocolat," again).
But for all that talent, this picture makes no kind of resounding impression, except one of overwhelming self-importance.
Kevin Spacey, who it seems has already shown us his entire acting repertoire, cobbles together various mannerisms we've seen before into a new configuration as Quoyle, a miserable milksop of a man whose horrible childhood with an abusive father set him up for a lifetime of indignity. This includes a crumbled marriage to an unfaithful trailer tart (Cate Blanchett in a splendidly sexy-repugnant performance), whom he still loves so much that he's devastated when she dies in car crash while running away with another man.
Add to this the recent murder-suicide of his parents, and it all becomes too much for Quoyle to take. This guy can barely cope with everyday life and raising an 8-year-old daughter. So even though he's afraid to step outside the familiar little box of his life, when Quoyle's scrappy, butch, old aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) comes calling from his ancestral home of Newfoundland (to execute vengeful plans for her brother's ashes), it doesn't take much persuading for him to pack up and go back with her.
Spacey takes Quoyle on a journey of self-discovery that is quite nuanced and revealing as he finds himself growing comfortable for the first time in his life, despite living in Agnis's completely dilapidated house, which is isolated on a craggy seaside point so wind-belted that the four corners of the home are anchored into the surrounding rock by steel cables. He takes a job reporting ships in and out of harbor for the local paper (thus the film's title) and slowly begins to emerge from his shell. He learns to sail (he hates the water), asserts himself with his obstinate editor (Pete Postlethwaite) and takes a shine to a local schoolteacher (Julianne Moore) with a retarded son, begetting awkwardly romantic results.
Aside from the convincing and emotionally earnest, but unremarkable and distant performances, almost everything the film has going for it comes from the source material. The undercurrent of battened-down emotions that runs through the town (the house is a powerful metaphor), the painful secrets in everyone's past -- especially those of Quoyle's family -- these are the elements that grab hold of the viewer.
Hallstrom does contribute a realistic sense of place in his choice of the movie's rugged, winter-assaulted locales and the casting of eccentric townspeople, some of whom help make for an eerie atmosphere. But otherwise the director seems busy plying the picture with the kind of highbrow melodrama that has become a hallmark of the awards season.
"The Shipping News" is a perfectly adequate movie if you want your heartstrings pulled in a conventional way. But it's pretty pallid stuff to be jockeying for awards. Of course, that's never stopped the Academy from nominating such films before. Hallstrom and Miramax are definitive proof of that.