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:: The Shipping News

E. Annie Proulx’s award winning novel, The Shipping News, seems like one of those books that are unfilmable. The lead character does little except react to the world, his journey is internal and only just begun by the end of the story, he is written as charmless and unattractive, all the opposite of what audiences have come to expect from Hollywood films, particularly ones that star Kevin Spacey. But, unlike the cloying Chocolat, Hallstrom’s previous adaptation, The Shipping News shines with humanity, warmth and gentle humour without the heavy handed self-consciousness.

The Shipping News is a section of the local newspaper in a town in Newfoundland, where Kevin Spacey’s character, Quoyle, finds himself early in the film. It is the home of his ancestors and he could not be more unsuited to it. Quoyle proclaims himself to be ‘not a water person’ in a fishing town. He is gentle and meek, whereas his family history is anything but. Previously an ink setter, he becomes a reporter, in charge of the shipping news. Many secrets are uncovered and Quoyle slowly starts to recover himself from the numb tragedy of his life.

Parts of the book do not make it to the screen, as is only to be expected. Having read it many years ago, I did not miss any of them. The moments of surrealism are beautifully done, the way that only film can. The performances are all restrained and sympathetic. Julianne Moore, disappointing in Hannibal, is a lovely presence beside Kevin Spacey. The characters are flawed human beings, living in a harsh environment and the audience soon treasures each.

There are perhaps too many tragic secrets revealed, and the largely plot less story may not be enough for some. Quoyle’s daughter, Bunny, and her The Shining-like sudden sensitivity is as unexplained as the weather, which goes from snow to clear, dry sunshine in the space of an edit. But what works on an emotional level overshadows these quibbles. Though true to the book, everyone seems to have a ridiculous name, Bunny, Petal, Wavey…. And we never find out Quoyle’s first name, perhaps with good reason.

Adapted for the screen by Chocolat’s screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, this is a far better film than Chocolat. It has all the things that Chocolat was aiming for and missed so badly, empathetic characters, quirky small town life, and an uplifting, life-affirming story.

Screening on general release