A Lot Lurks Below the Surface

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Review of 'The Shipping News', director Lasse Hallström

E Annie Proulx won a lot of fans with her novel 'The Shipping News'. It is impossible to recreate the complexity of the novel in a two-hour film, but director Lasse Hallström has gone some way to capture the atmosphere of the book.

The central character, Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), is a print worker in Poughkeepsie, New York State. Life is not going well for Quoyle. He loves his wife but she just finds him irritating, so she spends most of her time with her lovers. Quoyle's parents commit suicide (his father leaves their suicide note on Quoyle's answering machine). Then his wife dies in a car crash. Quoyle and his daughter Bunny are left with little to stick around for. Quoyle's long-lost aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) arrives on his doorstep and persuades them to follow her to make a new life in Killick-Claw, Newfoundland--as she says, it's the place 'where our people come from'.

Quoyle is an everyman figure, battered and beaten down by life, and lacking in confidence. Confused and swept along by events, Quoyle ends up with his daughter and aunt in their ancestors' home. The house is a battered shell, abandoned for 40 years and anchored to the clifftop with rusting steel cables. The three move in and start to make it their home. The centre of the story is how they start to rebuild their lives.

When he was a child, as a harsh lesson Quoyle's father pushed him into a lake to see if he would swim. There is repeated imagery of him struggling up through the water to find air--he describes himself as 'not a water person'. He goes looking for work with the local newspaper, the 'Gammy Bird', and to his shock lands a job as a reporter. He is forced to confront his fear of water and face the memory of his wife's death, since his job is to write about car crashes and the shipping news. But the job gives him some dignity and control over his working life, and gradually he starts to gain confidence.

The story uncovers incest, violence, drowning and piracy. This darker undercurrent pulls away from any nostalgic sentimentality for the fishing community of Killick-Claw. The Newfoundland scenery is stark, wind-battered and breathtaking--the whole thing is beautifully shot. It is a funny film in places. The newspaper office scenes provide much of the humour, showing the petty rivalry between the paper's editor (Peter Postlethwaite), Quoyle and their boss who 'runs' the paper from the distance of his fishing boat.

There is a lot that is good about this film, but in the end it doesn't quite do justice to Proulx's novel. A lot is lost in the translation to celluloid, and it fails to match the book's poetic individuality. Despite this it is an enjoyable film.