“What place on earth could be better than the place your people came from? Smell that clean northern sea.”
“I’m not a water person.”
Writer Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Shipping News” — one of those books that many say are unfilmable — traveled a long and winding road from the printed page to the screen. The rights were acquired by producer Linda Goldstein Knowlton a decade ago. Her first choice for director was Lasse Hallstrom who was interested but unimpressed by the first screenplay that was developed. As a consequence, the project found itself being considered by various others from the ridiculous (John Travolta starring with his wife Kelly Preston and filming in Maine) to the at-least-intriguing-if-not-sublime (Billy Bob Thornton starring and directing in Newfoundland where the story takes place and where Annie Proulx had hoped the film would be made). These combinations all fell through mainly due to script difficulties. Finally, Kevin Spacey was interested and Hallstrom came back into the picture both at Spacey’s request and fortuitous timing caused by another project of his having fallen through. Financing of $35 million was provided by Miramax who hoped that its past collaborations with Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat) that had brought Academy Award attention might do so again. Shooting took place during the first half of 2001 with interior work in Halifax and exteriors in Newfoundland, mainly at Trinity Bay, some three hours from the province’s capital city of St John’s. The film was released in December 2001 to mixed reviews and generated disappointing box office results. Miramax has now made The Shipping News available on DVD.
Quoyle is sleep-walking through life in Poughkeepsie when his peaceful existence is shaken up by Petal, who first seduces him, then marries him, gives him a daughter Bunny, and then leaves only to end up dead in a car wreck. When Quoyle’s parents then commit suicide, his future seems questionable until his Aunt Agnis appears and persuades him to accompany her to Newfoundland (the family’s ancestral home) along with Bunny.
The first sight of Newfoundland is not auspicious, nor is the original family homestead where the three must live. Quoyle manages to land a job at a newspaper, The Gammy Bird, writing copy on car crashes and the weekly ship movements in the local harbour (known as the shipping news). Quoyle is a flop at his job initially, but he starts to make some progress in this second chance at life with the assistance of a couple of the other reporters, Billy Pretty and Beaufield Nutbeem, and the support of the paper’s owner, Jack Buggit. [Editor’s Note: My, what an unfortunate name!] As he gains confidence, his existing relationship with his daughter Bunny, who seems “sensitive” to the very existence of their old homestead, and a developing relationship with a local woman, Wavey Prowse, seem likely to be key elements in any future that Quoyle may have.
The Shipping News is one of those films that gives us a tantalizing glimpse of a place and its people that we might otherwise never see. There’s also a unique sense of time to such films. Often they are set in earlier eras, but even when they are not, there is a feeling of time having slowed down that makes them seem to have been. We’ve been fortunate to have had a number of such films made in recent years. Chocolat, Snow Falling On Cedars, The Cider House Rules, Hearts In Atlantis are a few that come immediately to mind and if you have appreciated the atmosphere and artistry of those films, you will be similarly entranced by the uniqueness of Newfoundland that The Shipping News so well conveys.
It will come as no surprise that Lasse Hallstrom, the director of Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, is also responsible for The Shipping News. He shares (with Scott Hicks who directed Snow Falling on Cedars and Hearts in Atlantis) an apparent empathy for unique places and times and is able to convey that to the audience. We really get an appreciation for the attractions of such places and also for the people who make them their home. This comes partly from strict attention to detail in respect to what we both see and hear, and also how we see it — a vision necessarily shared with the cinematographer (in this case, Oliver Stapleton, who also collaborated on The Cider House Rules). Hallstrom also has an ability to draw from his cast intense yet natural performances that blend with the surroundings rather than draw attention away from them. In The Shipping News, the result is a generally fine set of character portraits that also allows Newfoundland to shine through as the significant character that it is itself in the film.
Of the performances, Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench turn in the best work. Blanchett’s role as Petal is brief but memorable. Almost unrecognizable at first, Blanchett quickly establishes not only the allure of Petal’s sexuality that first entraps Quoyle, but also the unsavoury aspects of it that subsequently help propel him to going to Newfoundland with his Aunt Agnis. It’s a memorable performance that further expands Blanchett’s already considerable acting range. Judi Dench took on the role of Agnis as a result of her involvement with Hallstrom in Chocolat. The highest compliment that you can give any actor is that you never have any sense that they are acting. Dench achieves this in most of her work, but never more so than as Agnis. She conveys the weatherbeaten look and the unique accent of a Newfoundlander so thoroughly that one just accepts her as a natural part of the landscape. Less successful are Julianne Moore and Kevin Spacey. Spacey is actually better than one might have expected him to be playing Quoyle, a man who is basically a passive loser only gradually transformed by Newfoundland and its people. He put on 20 pounds to play the role and for the most part, he manages to submerge the air of self-satisfied smugness that usually accompanies his work. In Julianne Moore’s case, the problem is the script more than her work as Wavey. There just isn’t enough meat in her part to create any sense of memorability about her character.
Of course, any difficult source material poses challenges to delivering a film that can present all the characters with the same level of dimensionality and all the plot threads with the same degree of complexity. The character of Wavey is just one example. On the flip side, the workers at The Gammy Bird newspaper are wonderfully presented in the persons of Gordon Pinsent as Billy Pretty, Pete Postlethwaite as Tert Card, and Rhys Ifans as Beaufield Nutbeem. The supernatural element of the story — Bunny’s sensitivity to the life force of the old homestead — is somewhat underdeveloped. Even though it was obviously important to the filmmakers, it just never grabs us as one of the film’s major themes. We may be quite drawn to the house and interested in its eventual destiny, but the supernatural aspect of it all is just not compellingly presented. One of the most satisfying aspects, on the other hand, is the film’s attention to detail in regard to local food, the attachment to the sea, the importance of a good boat, and the recurring motif of knots that united so much of the original book. A memorable music score by Christopher Young is an important component in establishing and maintaining the atmosphere, thus serving as a unifying force in the film.
Miramax’s DVD presents the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, anamorphically enhanced. For the most part, this is a pretty impressive effort. The film is dominated by grays, whites, and browns of Newfoundland in the early spring, and this is well conveyed in the image transfer. Contrast and shadow detail is very good, while blacks are deep and pure. Edge enhancement is at most a minor concern.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is provided in both English and French. This is a subtle mix with little in the way of strong low frequency effects or directionality. Still, it’s an expertly done job with all dialogue coming through very clearly and strongly. The musical score is nicely conveyed throughout. A very pleasing mix that thoroughly complements the image transfer. English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
Chief among the disc’s supplements is an audio commentary featuring producers Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Leslie Holleran, screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, and director Lasse Hallstrom. Knowlton and Jacobs are the chief contributors with the other two chiming in from time to time. This is quite an interesting commentary that tends to focus on the impact of Newfoundland on the various aspects of shooting, the various casting decisions, and the filmmakers’ choices in bringing the various aspects of the original book to the screen. Technical discussion about shot composition and the like is less common.
There is a 22-minute making-of documentary entitled “Dive Beneath the Surface of ‘The Shipping News'” that is routine at best with the usual array of clips and bits of interviews with cast and crew all extolling each other’s virtues. A photo archive of some four dozen images and eight trailers for Miramax releases are included, though oddly not one for The Shipping News itself.
The Shipping News is a reward for those who have patience for a carefully constructed story and do not suffer from a short attention span. Those who have read the book seem likely to be well-satisfied with how well the film has apparently handled its source’s complexities. Director Lasse Hallstrom has a knack for working with this sort of material and draws fine performances from his cast. Miramax’s DVD presentation complements the quality of the film well. Recommended.