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The Shipping News (Lasse Hallstrom) 2001 

The latest shipwreck from director Lasse Hallstrom (who actually made a good American movie – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape – once), The Shipping News is a piece of falsely modest claptrap. Based on a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize, one would hope that the film would not be so metaphorically ham fisted and obviously plotted, but it’s really not insightful at all.  There’s an abundance of folksy Newfoundland advice (“Tea is a good drink – it keeps you going”) and a general attitude that in life less is more, but those sentiments hardly feel revelatory. At least the film’s general lack of purpose saves the audience from the sheer manipulation that graced The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. Better no real agenda than an agenda that’s shoved down our throats. 

The entire cast seems to be in a manic depressive funk, with the exception of Cate Blanchett, who is only in the film for about a dozen minutes. The loss of her character seems to color the entire film in a gray haze, and even the inevitable catharsis at the conclusion doesn’t lift the fog that hangs over the picture. Perhaps, this is because, as Judi Dench’s character says, “It takes a year to get over losing someone”, and the film doesn’t stretch out over an entire year, so any joy to be found in life is still something that’s hovering on the horizon. As a result, the entire cast delivers somnambulistic performances, and you begin to wish someone would drop a cargo of Prozac on the downtrodden town. 

There’s much made about the shift of the main character’s (Kevin Spacey) profession from newspaper ink setter to newspaper reporter, and that change provides one of the more satisfying emotional arcs. Still, even this bit is scuttled because of a propensity for the cloying. The only time the film seems to break out of its dull streak is when it wants to underscore the quirkiness of the townsfolk, and that generally feels condescending. The film, which had at least maintained a bit of tonal consistency throughout, loses that tone completely when a series of semi-shocking third act revelations are revealed. The cumulative effect of the explanations, which attempt to make us understand the disposition of the townsfolk, undermines the film’s insistence that they were happy with their quirky lifestyle. Like many adaptations from novels, the film doesn’t know when to cut things out, and as a result, The Shipping News feels as if it has no thematic compass and ends up sinking. 



Jeremy Heilman