The Shipping News is a plastered drama, a pale imitation of small-town quirky people and their sometimes humourous, mostly tragic lives. This sort of thing has been done before, and better, by films like Mystery, Alaska and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Sadly, while the latter films use legitimate plot and well-constructed scripts as a foundation, TSN builds upon a gimmick, using funny or bizarre character names to help us identify with each. It is a shameless enterprise, even more so because the script takes the names seriously.
Are we really supposed to feel sorry for a man who hooks up with a tramp named Petal, only to be abandoned by her early in the picture? Can we be sympathetic to a girl named Bunny and whose only exemplification of her name is by hopping up and down a couple of times? The force of nomenclature is not enough to instill true identification with the characters, and as a result, they fall flat after we get over the initial “shock” of hearing their names.
Director Lasse Hallstr?m tries hard to make the material work. He instilled The Cider House Rules with depth of feeling through masterful use of color and mood; here he does the same, but it falls into the same tired trap that CHR succumbed to–that is, an overexpanded moral story. The feeling one gets in watching both CHR and TSN is that a simple moral premise has been flattened and stretched to fill two hours. TSN feels especially long, and there is little payoff in the end. It is almost as if the screenwriter fell asleep while composing the end and it just fluttered to a staid, sure slowness.
The plot is simple. Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) meets Petal (Cate Blanchett) and has a daughter with her, but Petal is a tramp and can’t stay tied down to one man. Quoyle is enamoured though, and even when Petal dies in a car accident, he feels he cannot let go. Then his father and mother die, and Aunt Agnes (Judi Dench) convinces him to move to their ancestral home in Newfoundland. There Quoyle meets Wavey (Julianne Moore), a local schoolteacher, begins writing the shipping news for the local newspaper, and tries to rebuild his life. It is a slow process, but eventually he finds his place, culminating in a violent storm and its hopeful aftermath.
Cinematography and lighting is so well done here that it’s difficult to find fault with it. In the hands of a less skilled director, TSN could have suffered from poor atmosphere, ill-conceived settings. Hallstrom imbues every shot with sensitivity and care, detailing with soft, grey colours, and filling the screen with patient shots. The actors are all top notch, but something seemed off, as if they were just out of sync. I think that it was the script that was the problem–they were working with a really lousy composition.
The Shipping News appeals because of its setting, its mood, and its gentle appraisal of the human condition, and the reparations needed to restore a person. It fails because of a poor script and over-gimmicky characterizations.
Fringe Rating: out of 5