SHIPPING NEWS, THE
Reviewed July 3rd, 2002 by Brian White
Why are all these actors speaking in Irish accents when they’re playing Newfies? That’s all I want to know. So I pulled into the multiplex last Christmas to see Shipping News (before Lord of the Rings!), because my Mother in law, a Newfoundlander, was visiting us. The theater was surprisingly full, and all attendees seemed to be transplanted Newfs. The film was very interesting to all of those present because of obvious ties. One thing that never happens in remote Canada is a major Hollywood film with really respected actors. Here we see Canada in a movie portrayed as Canada. What usually happens is Toronto doubles as New York, or my uncle’s Toronto condo doubles as the concentration camp at the beginning of X-Men (true story). Director Lasse Hallström mentions that Newfoundland is a character in this film. This is an extreme rarity. So, the Newfoundland connection makes the movie quite fascinating. If you don’t have that connection, I don’t really know what you’ll get out of The Shipping News.
The Shipping News is the story of Quoyle, a man living in upstate New York who has next to nothing nothing, and actually loses it. Kevin Spacey is Quoyle. He is muted and withdrawn. His portrayal is quite interesting. In the film version of the story, the torment that Quoyle suffers is a little absurd. Perhaps it makes sense in the novel, but due to the narrative compression required for film, it seems like a little too much. Quoyle’s Aunt Agnes shows up on the doorstep, and persuades Quoyle to return to Newfoundland with her, to their family home.
Quoyle’s experience in Newfoundland is predictably miserable. However, from that comes his character’s turning point. Quoyle actually fits in for once in his life. He has real relationships with people and discovers his family’s secrets.
The Newfoundland accent is very complex. It’s one of the few accents I can’t do, and I’ve heard it for many many years. Judi Dench has her moments, and Julianne Moore is trying really hard, but the only realistic Newfoundland accent comes from Newfoundland actor Gordian Pinsent.
Despite the accents, the cast is quite amazing. There’s a lot of talent on the screen.
Due to the pace, I found the film a little on the dull side. There are some really interesting things that happen here and there, but I just don’t know if the trip is worth it. While the atmosphere of the book has apparently been communicated perfectly, the jump to the screen seems to have been a difficult as you find yourself wondering why you care. Despite the relative brilliance of the novel, the execution of this film leaves a lot to be desired. Hence the low score for plot.
Shipping News was in development for many years. For a while it was a John Travolta project. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book must be fantastic, because after seeing the film, I don’t know what the draw was.
As for video, we have a lovely 2.35:1, anamorphic transfer. I wasn’t blown away by the clarity, but my test was the detail on the rope being tied in the credits, and it is certainly very clear. There is a slight Mirimax art house grain to the transfer, but it isn’t too bad. It’s very film-like.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is mostly toward the front, but very rich and detailed. There is some atmosphere coming from the surrounds. Not the most dynamic mix by any means, but very good for the movie at hand.
For extras, you’ve got a great behind-the-scenes featurette about the Hollywood types going to Newfoundland and trying to deal with it. I found that most amusing. Also included is a great screen-specific feature-length commentary from producers Leslie Holleran and Linda Goldstein Knowlton, screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, and director Hallström. There’s a lot of love for this project.
True Story: while filming part of Shipping News in Halifax, some of my high school acquaintances ran into Spacey, and had him call another acquaintance (a HUGE Kevin Spacey fan) in Montreal to wish him a happy birthday. That’s a cool Kevin Spacey story.
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