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Fairly good News -- despite false accents

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #120 March/April 2002

From Ocean Navigator #120 March/April 2002

E. Annie Proulx no doubt set The Shipping News in Newfoundland -- a seafaring culture if there ever was one -- to accentuate the awkwardness of her landlubberly main character Quoyle. We've all felt the pain of learning our way around a boat, so we could especially empathize. (Clearly, no one could be more incapable in a boat than he.)

It's a wonderful no, it's a masterful tale. Yet, in the process of teasing that book onto film, the insidious silver screen has filtered out some of the essence of Proulx's brew. Lasse Hallström's treatment of Proulx's story is never really a failure, though. To be fair, Hallström would probably have had to create a three-hour, bladder-be-damned epic to do the book real justice. And it's probably better to ignore the actors' failed attempts at local accents; if they had been successful in duplicating Newfie-speak, we would most likely need subtitles anyway.

So what has Hallström done right? He's chosen capable and polished actors: Kevin Spacey is superb as the consummate loser, Quoyle. Quoyle seems condemned to function forever on the lower regions of his brain stem. He drifts to and from work in a kind of trance, barely aware he is alive. That is, until Cate Blanchette's brilliantly portrayed slutmeister character, Petal, delivers him a copulatory wakeup call. When Petal is killed in an accident, Quoyle trudges out of his dead-end job in bleak upstate New York, and with his Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) and his daughter Bunny in tow, heads back to the Quoyle ancestral home in equally bleak, but cerebrally more challenging, Newfoundland.

The characters who populate the film are genuine and eccentric. (The reality is, if you're not eccentric, it's possible to go mad in Newfoundland, as Farley Mowat pointed out years before Proulx.) But the inhabitants of that cold, North Atlantic island struggle with their personal demons just like every other human being on the planet. The poverty, dignity and humor portrayed in the film are real. The terribly beautiful, brooding gray isolation is real. And Newfoundland outports really do have community leaders like Jack Buggit (played by Scott Glenn): intelligent entrepreneurial types who have chosen to remain where their forefathers eked out a living the sea and fishing inseparable from their souls. All of this color Hallström has captured in The Shipping News in spades.

In the end, the movie The Shipping News can certainly stand alone as an entertaining yarn with lots of salt water.J. Gregory Dill

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