Fans of author E. Annie Proulx will find little to love in this adaptation, and those who haven’t read her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel may even wonder what the big deal is about The Shipping News. There’s something in Proulx’s deceptively simple, straightforward prose which casts a spell, pulling her reader into not just the details of a specific world, but the way it feels to be there, and this film adaptation doesn’t capture that magic, even though it’s faithful to most of her plot points and was filmed on location in Newfoundland.
Swedish director Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog) has become an American master of middlebrow literary adaptations (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat). His style is at once so unobtrusive and insightful — allowing actors to blossom before the camera — that he manages to create the illusion of profundity where none exists. The Shipping News is so utterly bland and lifeless that there’s no real emotional investment in the characters, even as Hallström expertly manipulates audience reactions to this fish-out-of-water story set on Canada’s rugged Atlantic coastline.
Stripped of its literary batting, The Shipping News is a redemption tale about Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), a painfully ordinary man who’s shattered by the death of his charismatic, estranged wife, Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett). He takes his young daughter (trimmed from two in the novel) from upstate New York to the family’s abandoned homestead near the small fishing town of Killick-Claw, where he begins a tentative romance with another lost soul, Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore). Quoyle’s move is prompted by the surprise visit of his aunt, Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench), who embodies the tough-minded determination of the isolated Newfies, yet also demonstrates precisely why someone would want to leave this too-tightly knit community.
Both Quoyle and Agnis are pulled home in order to heal some rift in their lives, and that’s a delicate thing to pull off, particularly when the screenplay from Robert Nelson Jacobs relies on the rote revelation of family secrets (infidelity, homosexuality, incest, even piracy) and leaves very little room for subtlety or unspoken emotions, something that’s essential for characters as naturally reticent as these.
Is it true that only bad novels make good movies? For every 10 cases proving that theory, there’s a notable exception. But in the case of The Shipping News, a trip to the bookstore would be more rewarding.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].