Lasse Hallstrom found worldwide acclaim and success with last year's "Chocolat." A sticky, needlessly melodramatic slice of confection, I couldn't imagine the man responsible for "The Cider House Rules," "My Life As A Dog" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" would be remembered for something as instantly forgettable as "Chocolat." Well, Hallstrom makes a strong comeback with his new picture, "The Shipping News" (IMDb listing), which is based on the novel by E. Annie Proulx. Hard to classify, and thankfully free of candy, "News" take Hallstrom back to material that needs his deft hand more than his ability to please the masses.
Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) is a placid man going through the paces of life as it flashes by before his eyes. When he meets Petal (Cate Blanchett), Quoyle finds love and awe, but Petal finds a one-night-stand that resulted in a daughter and boyfriend she does not want. Years later, Petal is killed in a car crash, leaving Quoyle and his daughter all alone. Following his long lost Aunt (Judi Dench) to his family homeland of Newfoundland, Canada, Quoyle finds renewal through work as a reporter and affection in the arms of Wavey (Julianne Moore), an emotionally damaged woman whom Quoyle can easily relate to. Even though Quoyle is starting to come to terms with his own life, he must also deal with acres of secrets and bloody history the land of his forefathers gave birth to.
Even for the sugary Hallstrom, "The Shipping News" poses a more complicated challenge. Just how can you make a film even remotely watchable when it concerns adultery, beheadings, incest, double suicides, rape and even darker propositions than that? It's not easy, and as the production made its long journey to the screen (at one point John Travolta and Kelly Preston were attached as stars), I'm not convinced they were entirely successful working all the problems out. It suffers from the same shortcomings "Harry Potter" and "Lord Of The Rings" are afflicted with in that it's just too much book for a movie's length. In "Shipping News" Hallstrom gets a little sloppy with the narrative nips and tucks, since the story ends up going everywhere but in a straight line. So much so that it ends without warning, since there is no real climax to the film. I wish the filmmakers would've been a little more selective in what subplots they were going to follow, as in the rush to put it all up on the screen, they ignore the overall flow of the film.
Still, the raw power of the story shines through even when the film doesn't want it to. A remarkable tale of long lost secrets and rediscovering your life, "The Shipping News" contains some great moments of joyan added bonus being that the film is set in Newfoundland. What a joy to behold! Actually, anything not set in New York or Los Angeles is a joy to behold, but this time Hallstrom and Co. back up the story with truly breathtaking locations. Amongst the rocks, sea, and snow, nothing seems to suit this winding tale of mysteries greater than the very environment that has been holding them for centuries.
What makes "The Shipping News" stand out from the pack is the acting. I've been very critical of Kevin Spacey for quite some time now, if only because all the man has been playing are pretentious martyrs in the last couple of years. This time however, Spacey is playing a character who is meek in nature. Following through on this important detail all the way to the end, Spacey is a revelation. He doesn't overact, there are no sermons in the script where he teaches the audience how to live life to the fullest. Kevin Spacey is taking a chance with this character, and I love him for it. God forbid if there ever is a "K-Pax 2," at least I will have this performance to remember him by.
Hallstrom uses the rest of his cast to back up Spacey in ways I didn't expect. Both Judi Dench and Julianne Moore downplay their characters, almost to the point of muting them. The best scenes in the film are between Moore and Spacey, and for all the overreaching she did in "Hannibal," Moore is lovely here as the quiet, deeply hurt mother who wants love but is afraid of it at the same time.
"The Shipping News" is a flawed film with an abundance of abrupt subplots and unrealized characters. Yet, under the direction of Hallstrom and through the acting by Spacey, the film connects its loose ends successfully, albeit with severely frayed ends.
Filmfodder Grade: B