The Shipping News

The Shipping News (2002)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore
Extras: Commentary Track

One thing you can learn from "Shipping News" is how to spin a story. In a poignant segment early in the movie, Quoyle is taught how to create a headline for a story – "Imminent Storm Threatens Village!" It’s appropriate, as a book goes to screen, for it to weather some type of storm. It’s as if the book itself is a village, and in order to move from the book to the screen it must overcome the threats of a potentially wicked storm which could destroy the interpretation. If the movie can stand on its own and convey the heart of a story without the use of the book, I believe the film succeeds.

Lasse Halstrom has made a name for himself directing movies adapted from novels: "Chocolat" (2000), "Cider House Rules" (1999), "What’s Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993), and now, "The Shipping News" (2001)– based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by E. Annie Proulx. Book adaptations will always lose in the end when up against the source. There’s not enough time on the screen to convey human emotion on screen that comes from a novel. The question will always remain, how do you take interior pieces of a novel or get into the interior of the story when film is normally based on the exterior actions of the characters? Although motivated by their interior conflicts, wants and desires, most of the time you won’t see those thought processes of a character on film unless it’s narrated to you.

"Shipping News" is about Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), a loving father and lonely husband who, after the death of his free-spirited, uncaring wife (Cate Blanchett), and suicide of his mother and father, moves to his ancestral home in Newfoundland with his Aunt (Judi Dench). Thinking that he has secured a job at the local newspaper as an inker, he discovers he has been hired as a reporter to report car crashes and the shipping news. With no experience as a writer, he struggles with the job but through each article he writes he learns more about himself as well as the community his ancestors lived in. Through his struggles he develops a relationship with Wavey (Julianne Moore) who is dealing with her own personal issues. In Newfoundland, Quoyle comes to terms with his past and is transformed from a hapless, lonely person to a person with a new outlook on life.

With such a powerful ensemble cast, I was especially looking forward to watching the performance of Cate Blanchett. Unfortunately, she came and went. But her performance knocked me over. I was aware she played the part as Petal, but she was so convincingly strong I did not realize that it was Cate until she was gone. It was a special treat to have her in the film. Too bad it was only for a few minutes. As mentioned in the movie commentary, production had to be extra careful when filming Cate in one of the ‘car’ scenes because she was pregnant during filming. See if you can find that scene.

Of course Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench gave their usual top notch performances. I did feel Kevin Spacey was ‘too much actor’ as a casting choice for Quoyle. But he was a better choice than John Travolta – who I heard was initially cast. The subtle character traits that Spacey created for Quoyle were key to his performance. Overall, the character was a lesser character to his other roles as Lester in "American Beauty" and Verbal in "Usual Suspects".

The shared role of Quoyle’s daughter Bunny, played by triplets, Lauren, Alyssa and Kaitlyn Gainer, was a pleasant surprise. The movie really didn’t delve much into the character, but the small nuances and sub textural traits of Bunny brought depth to her character despite her limited screen time. I wish the relationship between Bunny and Quoyle had been explored more throughout the film. Instead, the film focused more on the romantic relationship between Quoyle and Wavey – where Julianne Moore’s performance as Wavey was a notch above superb!

To round out a really nice ensemble cast were: Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn) as the newspaper owner. Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans), a writer and free-spirited wanderer who ended up in Newfoundland when his ‘junk’ had problems on the way to Brazil. And Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite) as Quoyle’s nemesis at the newspaper – remember him as Kobayashi of "Usual Suspects"?

Filming location was beautiful. But I’d never want to live there. A big question I had about Quoyle was – why would he want to move to Newfoundland? I wasn’t sure being offered the opportunity to move by a long last aunt was sufficient motivation for him to relocate to a home basically built on ice.

I’ve heard a few responses to the film like, "I didn’t get it" and "What was the point?" – all valid responses. The film is definitely not driven by plot. Be prepared to watch a character driven film built around survival and self-discovery. I would give it a thumbs-up because I’m a sucker for movies dripping with character and theme, but the ‘point’ of the film was not an obvious one. I’ll let you figure it out.

"Shipping News" by Buena Vista’s Miramax Home Entertainment is presented in a 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> format that is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> televisions. The color scheme is balanced and provides a ‘cool’ atmosphere, which compliments the actual cold environment of the Newfoundland shooting location. Black levels remained solid. Images are sharp and detailed, and despite a low contrast level, still have nice depth. The picture is crisp and clear throughout but it is recommended to watch the movie in a blackened room for added depth. The presentation is beautiful but <$pixelation,pixelation> is sometimes evident giving off a digital appearance during foggy land and ocean sequences. Edge enhancement is also noticeable but not extremely distracting. The print is revealing of film grain and minor dirt. Flesh tones appeared accurate and natural. The overall presentation is nice with only the few noticeable flaws.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> soundtrack delivers a delightful listening experience throwing at us wind, rain, storm, and water sounds all at once with a smooth blend – and there is a lot of rain in the film! Although there is potential for all five speakers to provide other ambience to the film, the surrounds seem hardly noticeable. The music is full-bodied and voices are natural. The audio is pleasant, crisp, clean and an enjoyable sound experience that works well with the settings of the film. "The Great Big Sea" performs traditional Gaelic background score with additional music by Christopher Young.

A few supplements and special features are offered on the DVD. A <$commentary,commentary track> with director Lasse Hallstrom, screenwriter Robert Jacobs and producers Linda Knowlton & Leslie Holleran is available. The group offers only a few insights on filming, location, characters and story from book to script and finally screen, and it was a bit slow and unexciting. Often times it was hard to distinguish the voices of the two female producers, Knowlton and Holleran.

The 23-minute ‘making of’ documentary, "Dive Beneath The Surface Of The Shipping News" with behind-the-scenes footage was a decent featurette and scrolling through three photo archives was nice. "Sneak peeks" of other Miramax movies are also available.

"Village Spared From Deadly Storm!" Yes, "Shipping News" stands on its own. It survived the storm. Characters are well established and their overall wants and needs become clear throughout the film. The arch of the story and each character are well written and adapted (if you read the book you’ll discover characters were left out in the movie). A few questions may remain for those who have never read the book but overall, the movie weathered the storm and Lasse Halstrom’s adaptation of the book was well received.

The DVD itself is a fine rental on those nights when you’re in the mood for a poignant story of human emotions and reactions in the face of tragic events. Other than that, a wiser investment would be to purchase the book in hard-cover – if you can find it.