Following in a long line of filmmakers who've taken on the task of adapting a popular novel to the big screen is Lasse Hallström with his version of "The Shipping News." Based on novelist E. Annie Proulx's 1993 novel of the same name, the film marks the director's third year in a row of doing just that.
After 1999's "The Cider House Rules" and 2000's "Chocolat" - two films generally well-received by moviegoers and critics alike and recipients of 12 Oscar nominations between them - expectations are understandably high for this film, and why not?
With Hallström at the helm, Oscar nominee Robert Nelson Jacobs ("Chocolat," "Dinosaur") doing the screenplay adaptation and featuring a cast of Oscar winners and nominees including Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench and others, not to mention the Pulitzer prize winning source material, the stage would seem set for yet a third appointment with those little golden statuettes. While only time will tell if that will come to fruition, the resultant film is decent, but not spectacular, although it's likely to play differently to different viewers and critics.
Yet another effort that constantly exudes the feeling that it's based on a novel, the film seems an obvious choice for Hallström as it continues with the theme found in his previous works of damaged or lonely souls trying to make their way in a world filled with drama, laughter and personal tragedy.
The first act of this film is certainly teeming with just that and serves as an indicator of what's to come. Zipping through six years in a very short amount of screen time, the opening introduces the main characters as well as that of the reoccurring combo of dark or quirky humor and pathos.
Unfortunately, and despite a fun visual where Spacey's character morphs from one melancholy moment to the next, much of the first act feels exceedingly episodic. It's not until the second act and the characters' arrival in Newfoundland that things settle down a bit (although the film never quite shakes the disjointed feel).
What might bug some viewers - as it did with yours truly - as well as fans of the original work, is that the film feels like a CliffsNotes version of the novel where we're told the superficial story, but don't sense the underlying emotional turmoil.
While that's not uncommon in movies adapted from books, this film can't shake the feeling, and gives one the sense that there's more to it than we're seeing. In fact, and more so than in recent adaptations, it makes me want to go and read the book to fill in those gaps and thus experience the complete story one assumes is in the original source novel.
That problem - which others may or may not agree with - isn't horrible or debilitating. Yet, just like the eventual personal revelations that occur in this film as they did in the others, that gives the film something of an artificial and occasionally forced aura. Although I hate to say this, perhaps a longer running time - than the near two hours here - may have allowed for more of that depth that I couldn't help feel was missing.
For those who read the book, there was some controversy in the casting of Kevin Spacey ("K-PAX," "Pay It Forward") for the lead role, particularly regarding his physical type not being right for it. Having not read the work I can neither agree nor disagree with that assessment, but can comment on his performance. Although I don't know whether it's due to his take on the character, the way it's written or that aforementioned lack of complete emotional depth, but the actor's portrayal of Quoyle doesn't quite feel right.
While I understand that he's different, I could never quite put my finger on what was "wrong" with him particularly since he seems somewhat mentally impaired in regards to his "relationship" with Petal, deliciously played to the hilt by Cate Blanchett ("Charlotte Gray," "Bandits") in a part that's unfortunately too short.
His renewal or awakening thus feels a bit forced and too contrary to his earlier portrayal of the character. Notwithstanding those limitations/problems, Spacey is rather enjoyable in the role, although I'm not sure if it might have been better with someone else in the lead.
Playing her typical, wisdom-filled but cranky/feisty style character that's beginning to wear a bit thin with each subsequent appearance, Judi Dench ("Iris," "Chocolat") is as reliable as ever as the protagonist's aunt with a bagful of hidden secrets, while sisters Kaitlyn, Lauren and Alyssa Gainer (who collectively appeared in "Cast Away" playing the same character as they do here) are decent playing Quoyle's 6-year-old daughter.
Once in Newfoundland, the three meet the locals - a standard movie cross-section of down to earth people, weirdoes and kooky characters. When the film isn't dealing with its darker and emotionally charged moments, or just barely touching on the spirited old house and those noted as being "sensitive" to paranormal material - something one assumes is fleshed out more in the novel - those various townies provide most of the film's humorous and lighthearted moments.
As the "I'd rather be fishing" owner of the local paper, Scott Glenn ("Training Day," "Vertical Limit") is quite good, while Pete Postlethwaite ("The Lost World: Jurassic Park," "Among Giants") is a hoot as his editor who thinks he should run the place. Rhys Ifans ("Little Nicky," "Notting Hill") and Gordon Pinsent ("John and Missus," "Silence of the North") are fine as other newspaper employees, while the always dependable and radiant Julianne Moore ("Evolution," "Hannibal") delivers yet another solid performance.
If not for the "formula" of mixing damaged characters with offbeat humor and tragedy that now seems a constant in Hallström's works, as well as that nagging lack of enough emotional depth and connective filler to make the film seem whole and circumvent its episodic nature, the effort would be welcomed simply for being different from most of the predictable and unimaginative films released nowadays.
While it has some terrific moments, good performances and a wonderful coastal landscape, the film simply didn't impress me like I thought it might. Decent but not spectacular, "The Shipping News" rates as a 6 out of 10.