The Shipping News
Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News" has some claim, I believe, to being the greatest American novel of the late 20th century. It is a miracle of descriptive prose, married to the story of a man burdened with a 'doughy lump of a face' whose life as a victim is, in part, ultimately redeemed by a second chance in a fishing town on the hard, bleak north coast of Newfoundland.
It's a story and a leading role that seem impossible to translate to film (what conventional leading movie actor would risk himself to play such a role? What audience would look forward to seeing a film that deals almost entirely with failure, fear, and unexpressed rage?); but contrary to the consensus of other critics I think Kevin Spacey has gotten the role of Quoyle just right, and director Lasse Hallstrom and scriptwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs have found a reasonable key to the story. There are many changes and elisions in the film, understandably, but they do little harm. And Spacey, a remarkable actor in almost anything he tries, has found a heaviness - a heaviness of spirit as much as body - that communicates what Proulx needed to describe as a physical deformity.
The story itself is an amazing act of creative genius by Proulx. Quoyle, this sad, passive lump of a man, works as an ink setter for the Poughkeepsie, NY newspaper. (In the book he was a reporter.) He meets the dazzling Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett, breathtaking in a role a thousand actresses would kill for but none could do better), who sleeps with him and informs him that they will marry. They have a daughter, Bunny, who is Quoyle's only comfort in the face of Petal's constant infidelities. And then Petal takes Bunny away - somewhere - and Quoyle is lost. We learn that she has actually sold Bunny for six thousand dollars and gone with a new boyfriend, except that she has crashed the car and died. Bunny is returned to Quoyle.
We've barely digested this when Quoyle's aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) comes for Quoyle's father's ashes, to take them back to the family's ancestral village in Newfoundland, and Quoyle and Bunny go with her, to fix up and live in the family's long-abandoned house at the edge of the sea. Quoyle finds a job at the Gammy Bird, the local paper, writing the shipping news and the car-crash stories, and meets Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), a widow with a slow little boy.
To tell these facts does no justice to the story or the film; too much is woven into each episode, each moment, to be reduced to a recitation. The life of the Gammy Bird itself is full of mischief, intrigue, and even a moment of horror, all within the context of a relaxed and discursive expanse of wit. The actors Scott Glenn, Pete Postlethwaite and Rhys Ifans make a lovely team at the paper, dropping into and out of Quoyle's life as he begins to find both love with Wavey and an insight into the very bleak past of the Quoyles.
Though I often look for critical nits to pick, I find none to pick with this film. Certainly it is not the novel; but it has no pretensions to distorting, simplifying, or changing the book around. Visually it has captured that hard Newfoundland coast that Proulx described so well in print, and the people of the film are the same as the people in the book. Screenwriter Jacobs has found a way to give us the book without stuffing it with needless explication or distorting either the people or the land, and Hallstrom has directed a film that has power and sensitivity without being slick or mawkish.
Among the actors, Kevin Spacey in particular has found an analog to Quoyle's massive bulk by using his actor's genius and technical skill to give us the essence of the man Proulx created; but Dench, as the anchor of the film and the family, Moore as the native Newfie, and the unbelievable Blanchett as the hottest sexpot in upstate New York, all contribute here as well. This film is not likely to do well at the box office, and Miramax may end up eating its investment, but I for one am glad they made the effort.