Love him or not love him, Lasse Hallström has done it again: the human frailty, the sorrowful past, the hopeful future, the triumph of love and family over crushing despair. Ever since he broke out in 1985 with his Swedish feature Mitt Liv Som Hund (My Life as a Dog), the director has been spewing goodwill all over the damned place in multiple flavors — What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat. With his poignant, masterful adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Shipping News, the tide of humanity just keeps rolling in.
Adapted for the screen by Robert Nelson Jacobs, the film takes some liberties with Proulx’s coarse, haunting work, lightening up some of her desperate shadows (a child-sex ring is now a black-market adoption scam), and otherwise smoothing — but not blunting — her jagged narrative. Doubtless, these changes will summon detractors, but in the main Hallström and company thoughtfully tailor the tale to the screen, under the auspices of producer Irwin Winkler, who, perhaps not coincidentally, recently directed his own tale of fractured family in Life as a House.
In this case, however, the house is a little different — a dilapidated relic that’s been sitting abandoned on the rocky coast of Newfoundland for decades. Against all odds — and all plausibility, as the place is quite uninhabitable, especially in the winter — a family returns to discover, essentially, why they exist. Front and center is Quoyle, played by Kevin Spacey, who — like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind — is running for Oscar this year on the Forrest Gump ticket (as the oblivious dork who just wants to make good). When we first meet Quoyle, he’s busily falling prey to a horrid hustler named Petal (Cate Blanchett), who basically jumps his bone, takes him for what he’s worth, and accidentally gives him a daughter, Bunny (played by the triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn, and Lauren Gainer; fair enough, as Quoyle has two daughters in the book). Petal displays roughly the same courtesy and karma of an aspiring actress, so when she bails on Quoyle and sells their child, it’s painful but hardly surprising.
A newspaper ink-setter by trade, Quoyle can’t even afford a rearview mirror for his car, so he’s actually somewhat relieved when his father dies, attracting his quirky aunt Agnis (Judi Dench), who sees the passing as an ideal opportunity to rethink and restructure the family. Petal meets a suitable fate, Bunny is retrieved, and the motley kin hit the road for that wild, eastern part of Canada with the weird, half-hour time zone.
Set against the rugged coast of Newfoundland (earning the crew and drivers much deserved lauding), what follows is the stuff of many a drama: a dire and unhappy past seeking to strangle the present and future. Through grim, elegant flashbacks as well as Bunny’s observations (which she vehemently defends, repeating, “I didn’t dream it, don’t say I did!”), we learn that Quoyle and family played a strong role in the local fishing village, and not exactly a beneficent one. To Hallström’s credit, he allows us to take in the family’s horror and retribution without passing judgment; the life just is what it is.
The story would work simply as a psychological excavation — goodness knows, the damage of bad fathering is always a popular theme — but fortunately we’re offered plenty of local color to keep things engaging. The top draw is a local lady named Wavey (Julianne Moore), who’s got a son even slower than Quoyle, which — along with her freckly good nature — may explain his immediate attraction to her. While she lightly mocks his awkwardness — right down to the flimsy plywood boat we just know he’s going to tumble out of — it’s clear she’s in need of a good man, a role the lumbering Quoyle may, just possibly, fill.
It’s Quoyle’s new job, however, that brings the whole fishing village into focus. With great verve, Hallström presents us with the staff of The Gammy Bird, a local fishwrap with the blustery Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn) as its editor-in-chief. Quoyle suddenly finds himself responsible for covering car wrecks — a very regular occurrence in the booze- and fog-drenched region — and the humor of his perceptions mingles beautifully with the morbidity of his beat. When he’s forced into imbroglios with the other pugnacious staffers, Spacey, in a subtle but powerful performance, allows us inside the mind of a man claiming his right to live.
Amid the noise and pageantry of much Hollywood fare, it may seem difficult to warm up to the seeming frostiness of The Shipping News. However, Hallström has leavened the story’s bleakness with great warmth, fashioning one of the finest films of the year. Upon contemplation, Quoyle’s quest takes on a rich depth, signaling that with manhood comes the horror of history, but also, we can hope, the fortification.