Posted: 01/03/2002


The Shipping News


by Del Harvey

“Then there was the day it was too beautiful to shoot, candy-colored sun and sky that did not fit the mood of the film. [Cinematographer Oliver] Stapleton was already using a silver-retention process to bleach a significant percentage of the blues and greens from the film. “Newfoundland is a tough place, and if the landscape looks too color-saturated, it’s inappropriate,” he says. “You want even the sunshine to have a diamondlike quality, to look sunny but freezing, which is tricky to achieve on film.”

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I’ve read a few reviews about The Shipping News over the past few weeks. They seem to range from glowing to pessimistic, with more than enough variants in-between. I have not read E. Annie Proulx’s novel, and probably will not. I am of the opinion that a book and a novel are two different things. Being an enthusiastic reader, it took me some time to reconcile the fact that a film will never attain the level of wonder which a fine piece of writing can often achieve. However, I am a big fan of director Lasse Hallstrom. His most recent films - Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, My Life As A Dog, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape - strike me as fables of humanity, full of wonder and truth, while simultaneously resolute and adult in approach. Which is why I have been looking forward to The Shipping News for a while, now.

A very prominent Chicago critic has panned the film, claiming it stretches the imagination and is much to cute. And yet, the film has been given an ‘R’ rating “for some language, sexuality and disturbing images.” Forgive me if I espouse the opinion that some folks are missing the point. There is an old literary device which has been used over and over and over again to great success. It’s called allegory. Merriam’s definition of allegory as “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.” Seems a pretty accurate explanation for what happens to the film’s characters (as they probably did in the novel). Which is why, as a piece of film fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed The Shipping News.

Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects) plays Quoyle, a thirtysomething male whose listlessness seems to have been born out of the singular act of his father’s rough attempt at teaching the boy how to swim. Quoyle sank like a stone when he realized dear old Dad wasn’t going to jump in and help (after pushing the boy into the water in the first place). Quoyle settles like sediment into the dull job of ink-setter. One day he stumbles across a couple having an argument in the rain, watching the tableaux from the relative security of his car. When the woman, Petal (Cate Blanchett - Elizabeth, The Gift), a sleazy opportunist with no interest in the future, gets into his car, he is so stunned that another human, especially a female, would take any interest in him that he almost forgets to drive away. In no time, Petal has him in the sack, then is living with him, and soon enough is bloated and pregnant. When their daughter, Bunny, is born, Petal is “bored” and suddenly is never home. Her biggest concern for her family is when she calls from a bar to ask for money. This lumbering adult boy is left to raise his child. When Petal takes Bunny and runs away with one of her new boyfriends, Quoyle is devastated. It doesn’t help that his parents are dead and he’s just brought their urns home from the funeral parlor.

Fate has a funny way of working in this life, and his Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench - Tea With Mussolini, ‘M’ in the new Bond films) shows up, having heard about her brother’s death. Soon the police call with news of Petal. Seems she went off a high bridge and died on impact. But not before selling Bunny to an illegal adoption agency. She is found and returned by the police, and Quoyle realizes he does not know what to do. Agnis takes pity on him and convinces him to move back to their ancestral home in Newfoundland. But Quoyle has led an insular life, and his parents have not given him any family history, and the ghosts of his family’s past will slowly rise from the ocean mists as Quoyle settles in to his new home.

It is here that he meets Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore - Hannibal, The End of the Affair), a widower like himself with a kind heart and a sense of herself that will ultimately help Quoyle learn how to trust in himself. He also gets a job at the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, owned by Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn - Silence of the Lambs), and managed by Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite - The Usual Suspects). His new co-workers include the colorful and helpful Billy Pretty (Gordon Pinsent) and the young and carefree Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans). These people will also help him to learn how to be a human being and how to live amongst others.

The Shipping News is not the kind of story which can be told with the typical warmth and appeal afforded to such films as The Majestic, The Family Man, or other warm and fuzzy dramas. There is a good deal of sadness, difficulty, and conflict to overcome for many of these characters. But I found their dysfunctional situations to be more honest by far than those of the warmer, fuzzier variety. As an allegory for the contradictory and often confusing twists and turns of life, I found The Shipping News to be brave and refreshing.

Most of this can be attributed to Lasse Hallstrom’s expert direction. The script was written by Robert Nelson Jacobs, who also wrote the screenplay for Chocolat. The very appropriate, hauntingly tribal, and evocative score is by Christopher Young. And the first-rate cinematography is by Oliver Stapleton (State and Main, The Cider House Rules, Kansas City, The Hi-Lo Country).

I enjoyed The Shipping News tremendously and place it among the Top 10 films of 2001. I hope you find this dysfunctional tale as inspiring and humorous as I did.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago, is a devout Bears fan and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College for giggles.

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