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Judi Dench is as solid as
a Newfoundland promotory.

The Shipping News (2001) starstarstar

Reviewed 2001-07-01
: An abusive upbringing, quirky characters and a dysfunctional family history combine to make this low-key story of a beaten man's self-assertion Second Look Reviewinto a gem of a film. Kevin Spacey plays the mouse of a man, Quoyle, in the story based on the E. Annie Proulx novel. I have not read the novel, which is my practice and helps to keep my opinion untainted. On the other hand, a novel with such dependence on interior monologue often translates into a film requiring a narrator in voice-over. I think a film should tell its story visually, therefore I think a narration is a weakness (and I'm a narrator!).

But The Shipping News is not a weak film, whatever its weirdnesses. Quoyle, through interesting misadventures, comes to Newfoundland, afraid of water and of car wrecks, a single father. This, after his slutty wife, Petal (a slutty-looking Cate Blanchett) gets bored with him and leaves him and daughter Bunny (alternately Alissa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer) for another mark, er, man. An absentee boss, Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), who would rather fish than publish, hires this inksetter as a reporter for the "Gammy Bird." Of course Quoyle gets to cover the shipping news from the waterfront and all of the auto wrecks. But his character comes into his own, and soon his ownership of the family burden -- for most family histories are a burden, after all -- when he gets an article published over the objection of a colleague (a bristly Pete Postlethwaite). He then orders the computer he wants: "IBM. I-B-M."

The supporting players in The Shipping News have their moments: His aunt, Agnis (Judi Dench), persuades Quoyle to go to the ancestral home, a house so exposed on a the Newfoundland promontory it has to be lashed to the earth with cables. Her "moment" with the ashes of Quoyle's father is truly amusing. Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore) is a single mother with a retarded child; she runs a daycare center. She further binds Quoyle to the quirky town as she bonds with this man so lacking in self esteem that he proposed to the first woman who made love with him. And Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans), another colleague, just wants to make enough money to repair his boat and repair from town; he gets a going-away party that I've always hoped to see, with his parting regrets taken literally.

Quoyle. Petal. Bunny. Wavey. Buggit. Nutbeem. The names alone tell you how peculiar the characters are. But they're also charming, if you're in the mood for that -- although many critics were not. Lasse Hallströaut;m directed this slow-moving character-driven film. He has directed two other films I enjoyed greatly, primarily because of their distinctive charm: Chocolat and Cider House Rules. I think The Shipping News is nearly as good.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.