The Shipping News
directed by Lasse Hallstrom
(Miramax, 2001)

R.G. Quoyle is a shapeless man. He's not a failure because he's never tried anything that he could fail at. He coasts through life in a grey haze of existence, devoid of esteem and expectations.

Then Petal Bear, beautiful and wild, blows into his life, and Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) falls madly, devotedly in love with her -- the first person, apparently, who ever paid him any attention, much less showed him affection. But for Petal (Cate Blanchett), the casual allegiance quickly grows tiresome, and their child is little but an amusing distraction. She flees with a man in a sports car and dies in a dramatic wreck -- denying Quoyle any hope of reconciliation or resolution.

A chance encounter with his aunt, Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench) sets Quoyle and his young daughter on a new course, building a life in their ancestors' homeland on a rocky, beautiful coast in Newfoundland. It is there that The Shipping News takes off on a lush exploration of a man's self-discovery.

The movie is driven by character, not plot, and it may move too slowly for some viewers. Based on E. Annie Proulx's award-winning novel, The Shipping News has been resoundingly panned by a great majority of critics.

I think they're missing the point.

Quoyle isn't an everyman, he's a nobody. Watching him become somebody, gaining pieces of himself as he discovers his own competences, is a treat. And while the eventual romance with the pretty young "widow" and daycare supervisor Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore) might be obvious from the start, it's a delightful trip along the way.

The Shipping News is a very dark film, at places, filled with grim realities and bad things happening to good people. But it's leavened with humor -- not knee-slapping stuff from some stand-up's schtick, but real-life chuckles and quiet smiles.

Much of the wit comes from Quoyle's job at the Gammy Bird, the local newspaper, where he seeks employment as an ink-setter and ends up a star columnist. Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite) is the hostile managing editor who must toe the line set by editor-in-chief in absentia Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), who enjoys fishing more than newspapering and has a habit of cutting straight to the heart of a matter. Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans) and Billy Pretty (Gordon Pinsent) round out the staff and take the naive Quoyle in hand.

Other characters of note include Wavey's son, Herry (Will McAllister) and Quoyle's fey daughter, Bunny, brought marvelously to life by triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer.

Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton deserves high praise indeed for his deft hand on the camera. He creates for the audience an incredible, breathtaking and merciless landscape in Newfoundland -- and, truth be told, Newfoundland deserves credit as a character, too.

The Shipping News is a powerful story about people, not events. You should give this very human drama a few hours of your time.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 13 September 2003

There are places on Earth that make it a little easier to be happy, places that let the environment heal spirits with a benign caress of a breeze, a mildness that seeps into pores whether it's sought or not. The Newfoundland of E. Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News is not one of those places. If you become happy in these surroundings, and remain so, you've earned it.

Proulx, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1993 for this novel, shares writing credits for the film version, released in 2001. And it's one of those instances in which the movie not only does honor to the book (as well as a movie can), it also can stand on its own.

The Shipping News is an examination of the human condition at its most fragile, when it's been betrayed and beaten down, when childhood traumas stalk people into adulthood, when the family secrets that peep out of history aren't necessarily things you want to know. And it's all lived out in the presence of the sea, a character in its own right in Lasse Hallstrom's beautifully directed film.

His sea isn't a nice piece of scenery: it's a dictator of life and death, and it's filmed that way by cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, with whom Hallstrom worked on The Cider House Rules.

Proulx's novel is much larger a story than the film can contain. It's even darker, with more hurt and pain than can be pushed into 111 minutes of film time. And yet the screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs gives Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett and the rest of the cast ample space to give a nuanced ensemble performance.

Shipping News centers on the life of Quoyle (Spacey), a submissive man whose uncharacteristic one-night stand leaves him with a wife (Blanchett) who has nothing but disdain for him and a daughter who idolizes her mother. When his parents die and his wife is killed in an accident, Quoyle and his aunt (Dench) travel back to the family home in Newfoundland to make a fresh start.

In a shattered house tethered to rocks above the ocean, the newest Quoyles try, in fits and starts, to rebuild. Actions of their forebears, brutal and unforgiving, remain secret but still exact a price. And Quoyle, slowly gaining strength through his job writing the shipping report for the local newspaper, begins to stumble toward some peace without quite knowing how to get there.

Spacey's meek Quoyle is perfectly matched with Dench's Agnis Hamm, wounded to her core, and Moore's Wavey Prowse, who has her own darkness to bear.

The ending is too abrupt, too neatly tied, and the scope of Proulx's novel necessitates some shortcuts. But The Shipping News still ranks among Hallstrom's, and 2001's, finest.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 13 September 2003

Buy it from