The Shipping News

Some novels need to be left alone. Hear that, Hollywood? Annie Proulx's 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner uses language as bait. Hard, short sentences grow into flowing ones, and suddenly we are hooked by eccentric characters trying to redeem their blasted lives in the revivifying chill of Newfoundland. In the film, directed by Lasse Hallstrom and scripted by Robert Nelson Jacobs — the perpetrators of Chocolat — the language is leaden, the pace glacial and the characters indecipherable. It's easier to read the actors — they all seem eager to win an Oscar. Fat chance.

 

Kevin Spacey is wrong, wrong, wrong for the role of Quoyle, a pockmarked lump of a man with dead eyes and a dead-end future churning out bad copy for a newspaper in upstate New York. It's what they call an acting stretch: Look, Spacey can play dumb. No, he can't. John Travolta and Billy Bob Thornton, who both circled the role, could have done it better. Spacey, who can't hide the mischief and wit in his eyes, is way ahead of the incremental advances Quoyle is supposed to make in self-esteem as he fathers a child by a doomed trash queen, Petal (Cate Blanchett — the only sign of life in the film), takes their daughter, Bunny (played by the triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer), to live in Newfoundland with his feisty aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) and gets a job writing the shipping news for a local rag run by Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn). Quoyle meets Wavey (Julianne Moore), a single mom, and love blooms. Unless you've read the book, you'd never know what motivates these characters. To compensate, the script finally has them shout festering secrets at each other: "My brother raped me." "My husband left me for a bimbo." "My mother sold me like a slave." Blah. Blah. Blah. Show, don't tell, is the first rule in movies. Hallstrom ignores it, leaving audiences to sink into a stupor.

From The Archives Issue 888: January 31, 2002