Lasse Hallström’s The
Shipping News , from a screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the
novel by E. Annie Proulx, has received very mixed reviews since its release.
But long before then it had become the victim of a persistent “buzz” in the
trade papers, the gossip columns and on the Internet-so much so, apparently,
that the picture has been dismissed as a mess, Mr. Hallström wound up in the
hospital before he could sign off on a final edit, and six minutes of the film
were cut after the first screening.
I am baffled by all the negativity surrounding it, and I am
prepared to designate it as the most underrated film of 2001. I am surprised
also that Kevin Spacey has been widely branded as miscast and ineffective in
the lyrically submerged role of a congenital loser named Quoyle, whose tangled
roots drive him back to Newfoundland after a series of disasters that occur
while he is working as an ink-setter for a newspaper in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Since I can’t imagine any
other actor in such a nebbish role being half as effective as Mr. Spacey, I can
only urge my readers to rush off to this singularly stirring entertainment
before it disappears from view. However, if you do plan to see The Shipping News , you may not want to
read any further in this review until after you have seen the movie’s jolts,
surprises and epiphanies for yourself.
The movie begins with what I can only describe as a lyrical
linkage between Quoyle, the ever-drowning, water-hating child, and Quoyle, the
still-drowning adult. The child has been thrown off his father’s dock as a
“tough love” way of teaching the boy to swim. As the boy gazes helplessly up
from the depths, his face dissolves into that of the grown-up Quoyle still
drowning, metaphorically, in the sea of existence. We realize instantly that he
has not done very much with his life, and his life has not done very much with
him. Mr. Hallström and his collaborators have thus established a character and
life pattern in record time without wallowing in a sea of behavioral
mediocrity. We see Quoyle at his unrewarding post, by a circulating machine we
have seen so many times spewing out newspapers with melodramatic headlines.
Here the presses are de-dramatized as we see everything from Quoyle’s point of
Things change very rapidly when a voracious female named Petal
(Cate Blanchett) invades Quoyle’s life and barely gives him a chance to breathe
before she has bedded him, married him and presented him with a little girl
named Bunny, whom Quoyle cares for dutifully while Petal is out carousing with
other men, and not just out. On occasion, she brings her lovers right into the
house, and keeps complaining to her husband about how boring he is. It is hard
for an actor or a character to keep his dignity in this situation, particularly
in these macho times for many movie-going tastes.
Still, the story keeps getting more outrageous than life,
especially after Quoyle receives a telephone call from his father telling him
that he and Quoyle’s mother are about to commit joint suicide, and want Quoyle
to make the funeral arrangements. It is about this time that Petal runs off
with her current lover and takes Bunny with her. Curiously, Bunny has always
loved Petal despite, or perhaps because of,
her excesses. Nonetheless, Quoyle persists in believing that Petal and
Bunny will return, a belief that transcends stupidity into becoming a kind of
heroism. The police arrive at his door to tell him that Petal and her lover
have died in an automobile accident. Bunny is safe, however, because Petal sold
her for $6,000 before she embarked on her fatal trip. The irony is that Bunny
continues to love Petal, and for a long time refuses to believe that she is
It is in the midst of these
catastrophes that Quoyle’s Aunt Agile (Judi Dench) arrives at his doorstep to claim the ashes of her brother, Quoyle’s father. She then persuades Quoyle to
start a new life with Bunny in their “ancestral” home in Newfoundland, actually
a ramshackle house precariously anchored on an ocean-side cliff. When Quoyle
first sees the house, he cannot believe that he and Bunny and Aunt Agile can
possibly live in this wreck of a dwelling. But Aunt Agile persists, and Quoyle
and Bunny bunk down for a new life.
Quoyle applies for a job at the local newspaper with only his
ink-setting position in Poughkeepsie to recommend him. He is immediately
recruited as a reporter by the managing
editor, Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite). Quoyle’s job is to report the
shipping news, picayune as it is in this small fishing port. The paper’s owner,
Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), gives Quoyle his most valuable lessons in magnifying
a routine story into a journalistic coup. But to succeed, Quoyle must overcome
his understandable lifelong aversion to water.
As Quoyle gains confidence about his place in the picturesque
town of Killick-Claw, he takes the initiative in courting a local widow, Wavey
Prowse (Julianne Moore), and her retarded son, Harry (Will McAllister). Wavey
tends to look more kindly on Quoyle when Bunny becomes the only child ever to
bond with Henry. But Wavey is no pushover, and Quoyle discovers he has to go
deeper into his feelings than he has ever gone before to land Wavey, who has
her own secret about her husband. Despite its seeming quaintness, Killick-Claw
is the repository of many cruel secrets, all of which are revealed by the final
fade-out, though not without some initial puzzlement.
When Aunt Agile enters the
family’s outhouse to pour her brother’s ashes down the hole, and then proceeds
to defecate on his last remains, it is not until much later that Quoyle and we
discover that Aunt Agile is simply avenging an old wrong. So much becomes clear
about Quoyle’s father, and, in the process, Quoyle begins healing his own
wounds as he starts his new life.
There has been a lot of talk about this movie or that being
faithful to this book or that. Ms. Proulx has stated that she is quite pleased
with the adaptation of her much admired novel. But even if it could be
demonstrated that the filmmakers did not dot every i and cross every t in
transferring a prose work into a film, I would argue that a film stands or
falls on its own merits as film irrespective of its literary source. It may
therefore be possible to imagine a stronger and tighter film than this version
of The Shipping News , but I am
inclined these days to embrace positives rather than hold out for ultimates.
There is more than a little humor, dark as it may be, in this
version of The Shipping News . Mr.
Spacey’s Quoyle pops up unexpectedly from time to time with comments that are
witty and pithy-some in headline form-and I find that sign of complexity
interesting in a character who is otherwise a candidate for total
condescension. Julianne Moore projects warmth as Wavey, and it is welcome in a
film that without her could be as cold emotionally as it is climactically. In a
very small part, Cate Blanchett displays an amazing versatility in humanizing a
preposterous character like Petal. And what can one say about Judi Dench that
has not been said over and over again forever and forever?
If I had to encapsulate the movie in two scenes, I would begin
with the frenzied spectacle of Bunny hammering away homicidally at her doll
because she found it “boring,” a quality she fears her mother Petal found in
her to cause her to abandon her. When Quoyle, witnessing Bunny’s rage, tells
Wavey that Bunny worries him when she beats the brains out of her doll, Wavey
calmly observes that the doll is a toy, not a person, and Quoyle shouldn’t
worry. I found Wavey’s attitude very wise and compassionate. I have no idea
where the idea for these scenes came from: the book, the screenplay, the
director or all three, but they are typical of all the small moments that
eventually coalesce into an expansive celebration of several repaired psyches.
It is good also to see Scott Glenn and Pete Postlethwaite supplying more than
their share of local atmosphere.
Love on Paris Time
Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time
Is It There? from a screenplay by Mr. Tsai and Yang Pi-Ying, is a whimsical
and fatalistic tale of two cities-Taipei and Paris-reflecting the
cross-fertilization of Asian cinema with the French nouvelle vague . Indeed, Mr. Tsai has declared in an interview that
François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows
(1959), is his “all-time favorite film.” Hence, the materialization of
58-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud on a bench in a Paris cemetery serves as an hommage to Truffaut and his 14-year-old
alter ego 43 years ago in The 400 Blows .
Mr. Tsai’s film (which I
reviewed when it was featured at the New York Film Festival last year),
however, is much drier and more unyielding than anything from Truffaut. Its
plot is simply a pretext for Mr. Tsai’s ruminations on the very loose
connections between people alienated from the modern world. Hsiao Kang (Lee
Kang-sheng) peddles watches in Taipei for a living. A few days after his
father’s death, he meets a young woman, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), who is
leaving for Paris the next day. He leaves her his telephone number in case she
wants a special watch he doesn’t have on hand.
Meanwhile, his mother prays obsessively for the return of her late husband’s spirit, and Hsiao Kang becomes
obsessed in his turn with Shiang-chyi, now far away in Paris. He tries to
bridge the enormous distance between them by setting all the watches and clocks
in Taipei to Paris time. Ironically, Shiang-chyi is having a lonely, miserable
time in Paris, and wants to call Hsiao Kang in Taipei, but has lost his number.
There is an ending, more surreal than supernatural, but it provides
a form of spiritual closure, though not the promise of happiness in Western
terms. Mr. Tsai is a very original artist in his medium, and What Time Is It There? should be seen at
the very least for its spasms of absurdist humor.
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