The Shipping News (2001)

Directed by Lasse Hallström; Written by Robert Nelson Jacobs

Lukewarm performances in icy Canada make The Shipping News a forgettable affair, with its only unfortunately memorable element Kevin Spacey’s weepy b-side performance to his Oscar-winning turn in American Beauty. 

Quoyle (Spacey) is a loser and pitiful sad sack, who in a maudlin voiceover describes himself as someone no parent loved, and no person noticed. A comically misguided relationship sends him reeling when it ends, and filmmaker Hallström’s mistake is thinking that we care for him, as he’s stowed into his long-lost aunt’s handbag and taken to Newfoundland, Canada, where he might get a grip. 

He’s from here, he’s told; His ancestry, his kin, and his blood runs in that icy water and contained in that name of his that to most people sounds like a snort, there’s an unsavory legacy: murderers, pirates, monsters all bore it before him and as he learns, his family’s evil is not long gone. Hallström’s film wants to have it both ways, as it insists our past never leaves us, but that anyone can turn a fresh page. 

It makes The Shipping News a weird grab-bag of rather gruesome violence, family trauma, and schmaltzy dialogue, all carried along by rather uninspired performances from its central cast, who are either underserved by the creative material or in the case of Kevin Spacey, simply uninspired, as Spacey plays Quoyle as a simpering twin to fellow small man Lester Burnham from American Beauty

Quoyle’s a man with few redeeming qualities, and he often tarnishes the few qualities he does possess, meaning there’s little to root for in him, and his voice-over narration does him no favours, revealing a man fully buying into self-pity. A problem for The Shipping News is that the movie wants you to root for him, just because he’s a protagonist and he’s told us a sob story. 

Sorry, but no. Too many times have weak men defended bad behaviour and claimed themselves the victims because of their demons, and Quoyle’s just another, albeit less charismatic, manlet of the same ilk. 

The Shipping News premiered in 2001, on the cusp of a wave of anti-hero leading men that would first appear on television. Maybe Quoyle could have been an interesting character in that light, but Hallström’s treatment of him never strays from the soft focus lens that looks kindly on him. 

Surrounding him is a cast of Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore and Judi Dench, which should make this be appointed viewing, but it’s only really Dench who lives up to her billing, every bit as terse, sharp and demanding as her character requires her to be. 

Like the ghosts that haunt Quoyle, The Shipping News is something best forgotten. 

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