Annie Proulx's Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Shipping News, was a tale of ragged lives and jagged scenery. Proulx's prose shone with the gritty, the unkempt and the unwieldy, and through it, her main character, Quoyle, was drawn as one of life's ugly, misbegotten failures. It was an unsentimental portrait rendered in so extraordinary a form that Proulx's refusal to bend to narrative convention was a constant provocation.
Not so Lasse Hallstrom's film version, the director's third literary adaptation in a row (following The Cider House Rules and Chocolat). Here, with his trademark humanism and penchant for whimsy, Hallstrom straightens out the text to transform it into fairytale.
Where Proulx's Quoyle was "a great damp loaf of a body", Hallstrom's – with Kevin Spacey – is merely paunchy. Where Proulx afforded him his share of the blame for his wasted life, Hallstrom lets Quoyle's abusive father take the rap. But, most significantly, where The Shipping News in print was a novel about the redemption and reclamation of mind, body and soul, the movie News is content to have its simple hero simply find life and love. After his opportunistic wife, Petal (Cate Blanchett), takes off with a better prospect, leaving him with their young daughter, Quoyle is persuaded to return to his Newfoundland roots by his Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench).
Quoyle, an unskilled print worker, is made a reporter on The Gammy Bird, Killick-Claw's local rag and this new sense of self-importance, along with his feelings for widow Wavey (Julianne Moore) makes something of a man of him. The supporting cast provide the tang: Blanchett's fabulous piece of white trash; Dench's wonderfully crabby Agnis, and the salty trio of Scott Glenn, Pete Postlethwaite and Rhys Ifans as Quoyle's fellow newshounds.
But this adaptation founders on its lead performance. Spacey plays Quoyle as dull and dimwitted, consciously avoiding bringing his usual deliciously mischievous insight to bear. The result is a flat, leaden character, devoid of nuance. So much of what Spacey does so well is in the life behind his eyes, yet here he offers only limpid pools, providing Quoyle scant depth and even less charisma.
In his dealings with the Newfoundland terrain, Hallstrom is on surer footing; the craggy, bleak landscape is magical on the screen. His natural romanticism enlivens the elements of myth and folklore, while his affinity with children is, once again, notable.
Yet, despite moments where these look all set to lift the picture, it never truly takes off and its lack of anything approaching profundity eventually sinks it. While he may be praised for making a film so easy on the eye, Hallstrom's mistake was to make it too easy on the brain.Reuse content