The Shipping News



USA 2001 : Lasse Hallstrom : 111-114 mins

Film awards can be harmless fun – but The Shipping News suggests we’ve reached the point where their presence in the calendar is having a detrimental effect on the movie business. This stodgy tale of a sad-sack American (Spacey) who returns to his family’s old home in a fishing community the rugged Canadian coast of Newfoundland is a classic example of the current trend for the tail wagging the dog. Rather than trying to make the best pieces of work possible, certain studios are now trying to second-guess the academy (and the other awards bodies) by assembling ‘Oscar packages’ designed to please a perceived ‘target market’. You take a respectable, preferably European director, a best-selling but intellectually respectable novel, then pack the business end of the cast with award-garlanded names (here, Oscar winners Spacey and Judi Dench, joined by nominees Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett and Pete Postlethwaite).

The recipe worked a treat two years ago, when Hallstrom’s Cider House Rules notched up a stack of Oscar nominations, two wins (for John Irving’s screenplay adaptation and Michael Caine’s performance), and an unexpectedly strong box-office performance. Last year’s Chocolat was only marginally less successful: while it went away empty-handed on the big night it did manage to translate its Oscar nods into impressive worldwide box office. But Chocolat turns out to have had an unexpectedly bitter aftertaste – as soon as the nominations were announced, many Academy members realised they’d been dazzled by production company Miramax and their relentless plethora of persuasive ads. Twelve months later the studio fared notably less well in the nominations, and then the ceremony itself turned into a bit of a bloodbath, with only Jim Broadbent somehow emerging from the wreckage of the much-touted Amelies and In the Bedrooms.

The Shipping News was the most direct sufferer of the Chocolat effect – frozen out of the nominations altogether, and suffering a rapid commercial death as a direct result. It isn’t a drastically inferior picture to Chocolat, just as that picture wasn’t drastically inferior to Cider House – but these three films chart a steady process of decline. Hallstrom achieves the tricky feat of getting uninteresting performances out of Spacey (never worse), Moore and Blanchett – Dench has reached the Teflon stage whereby she can rise above the limitations any director. For all the talented performers involved, however, this lengthy, apparently quite arduous shoot represents a quite scandalous waste of their valuable time. They could have been doing so many better things, working with so many better directors and scripts.

The complexities of Proulx’s novel prove far beyond the capacities of Robert Nelson Jacobs, whose screenplay adaptation comes out as an uncomfortable blend of John Irving and Stephen King. From Irving, we get a series of bizarre, semi-comic events involving borderline-farcical family tragedies and characters with ostentatiously silly names like Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans), Wavey Prowse (Moore), Agnis Hamm (Dench), Bayonet and Silver Melville (Larry Pine, Jeanetta Arnette), and, daftest of all, Tert Card (Postlethwaite). Test Card, maybe, but ‘Tert’ is a step too far.

Though the ‘Nutbeem’ character is English, no doubt many of these odd names are real Newfoundland appellations, just as Dench’s weirdly Irish-sounding accent is, apparently, very closet to the regional way of speaking. It therefore must be filed alongside John Malkovich’s Lithuanian from Rounders and Ian Holm’s Corsican from Big Night, in the annals of movie accents which sound ridiculous but which are apparently spot-on. The Stephen King aspect is the semi-supernatural, somewhat Dolores Claiborne-ish atmosphere of the Newfoundland setting, to which Spacey’s young daughter Bunny (played by three triplets from the Gainer family) seems especially ‘sensitive’. At times this kelp-strewn ‘Newfie Gothic’ element edges towards the more lurid territory of John Carpenter’s The Fog, but Hallstrom is much too respectable these days to indulge in anything so impolite (though in a previous incarnation he was famously responsible for Abba – The Movie). As it is, he aims for less choppy waters, aiming for an unspecified, Celtick-ish mysticism. It all adds up to a very lumpy, clammy kind of chowder.

29th March, 2002
(seen 25th January, Cineworld Milton Keynes)

by Neil Young
Back to Film Index