It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that adapting books to film is a challenging task that more often than not fails to recapture the ambiance of the written page. Taking into account the Pulitzer Prize its source material won, this is never more true than in "The Shipping News," a low-key character study directed by Lasse Hallstrom (2000's "Chocolat") that never quite conveys the growth of any of its participants.
When the low self-esteemed Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), an ink man for a local New York newspaper, has a chance run-in with the dark-eyed, mysterious Petal (Cate Blanchett), leading to her pregnancy, he falls madly in love with her. Petal is a fast-mover, though, and has no time for him once their daughter, Bunny (triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn, and Lauren Gainer), is born, even going as far as to bring strange men to their home to sleep with them. When Quoyle's father dies and Petal meets the same fate in a car accident, he is paid a visit from his aunt, Agnis (Judi Dench), who invites him and Bunny to move to the snowy, bleak coast of Newfoundland. Heartbroken over Petal's death, Quoyle and Bunny attempt to start a new life for themselves, with Quoyle getting a job as a reporter for the Gammy Bird newspaper and making a connection with single mother Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), who has had some difficult times in her past, as well.
"The Shipping News" is Miramax's last bid of the year for Oscar glory, but they have struck rock, rather than gold, with this muddled adaptation. Director Lasse Hallstrom and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs have brought E. Annie Proulx's acclaimed novel to the screen, but in place of the intimacy vital to the characters' growth and their relationships is a curiously detached feeling that leaves the viewer at arm's length from the happenings onscreen.
The star of the picture is the bravura cinematography, by Oliver Stapleton (2000's "State and Main"), painting Newfoundland's rocky coast as a majestically beautiful, but glacial, brooding place to visit. Watching the film, you can palpably feel the coldly stinging temperature and snowy weather. The setting is so overwhelming, in fact, that it threatens to drown out the lackluster narrative, and often does.
The story of one man searching to find happiness and closure with his lot in life, Quoyle is a potentially alluring character whose feelings are rarely plausible or accurately felt. Hallstrom ends his story in a cheap manner that tells us, in narration, of Quoyle's coming-to-terms. It is beneficial that he did because one would never know it without the narration. Each of the characters are peculiar, yet original, individuals worthy of more than the short thrift this particular story gives them.
The cast is exceptional, but only a precious few are used to their satisfying capabilities. Kevin Spacey (2000's "Pay It Forward
") gained twenty pounds to portray the soft-spoken Quoyle, and the added weight has turned him into a kinder, gentler-looking person--perfect for the role. Spacey makes Quoyle sympathetic but, due to the half-hearted script, is not given the chance to play him as a character going through life-changing epiphanies.
The other bright spot is Cate Blanchett (2001's "Bandits
"), hatefully seething as the heartless Petal. Blanchett has never been given a chance before to play such a mean person, and she is just as effective as she always is. Blanchett disappears after the opening fifteen minutes, but the indelible impression she leaves behind hauntingly hangs over the rest of the film.
With a Canadian accent that is, at first, annoying, Julianne Moore (2001's "Hannibal
") warms up to her lonely character of Wavey Prowse, a woman who has her own personal demons to overcome. Judi Dench (2000's "Chocolat"), as Agnis, Quoyle's aunt who also has a skeleton in her closet, has little to do, but does it with the right amount of vigor. The characters in "The Shipping News" are like broken records. They all mirror each other in their insecurities and problems, and are too underwritten to be sufficiently effective.
The conclusion is insignificant under the helm of Hallstrom. Tellingly, he could have ended the story at any point in the last twenty minutes and it wouldn't have made a bit of difference. So loosely developed is "The Shipping News" that it does not appear to have been based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel at all. No, it's more reminiscent of a high school book report.
©2001 by Dustin Putman