Every so often, a film will slip under the radar of film critics, usually because of other cinematic distractions. This holiday season, that distraction was undoubtedly The Lord of the Rings. So a limited-release movie starring Kevin Spacey about a fishing village did not, per se, grab my attention. Only upon settling down into the theatre did I realize the type of movie this was being billed as — one that only old people go to.As I stirred uncomfortably in my seat, I briefly considered making a break for it: clawing at strangers, gasping for air, knocking grey-haired retirees out of their scooters. My performance would give new meaning to the word, “panicky.”
In retrospect, my mad mental scramble for the exit was a little hasty, because there was no need to flee. The Shipping News is a fine film, with enough inter-generation acting to satisfy a wide range of viewers. That is, if you don’t mind being weirded out for almost two hours.
The story revolves around a man named Quoyle (Kevin Spacey). Emotionally crippled by years of verbal abuse and bereft of all dignity, he finds himself accidentally involved with a less-than-kind-hearted harlot by the name of Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett) whose only gift to Quoyle is a brief, charitable act of carnality when they first meet.
After that moment (and one child later), the “couple” is living unhappily ever after, until Petal’s unfortunate(?) demise. His daughter is spared Petal’s fate, by fortuitously being sold into slavery just moments before a watery car crash. Some girls have all the luck.
He gets his daughter back, poorly copes with the death of his wife (and his parents, who kill themselves), and generally stares at things until his father’s sister, Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench) shows up. She tells Quoyle something of his past, and convinces him to visit the homestead.
They move to Newfoundland, whereupon Quoyle gets a job with the local paper writing about car wrecks and the comings and goings of ships at the docks, unwittingly stumbling into a tidy little niche as a popular columnist.
Every character he meets is just that — a character. And they all have their own story to tell, almost always involving the sea, and some ill-luck that has befallen them. Everything that could possibly detail the downside of the human condition is here: murder, suicide, lost love, rape, incest, family curses, arson, piracy, looting and even crucifixion.
There are some interesting visuals in the film as well. The house that they live in is lashed to the ground with gigantic steel cables which sing in the wind. A headless body bobs comically up and down in the bay, while said head floats nearby, kept safe and dry inside a brightly coloured cooler. The sun doesn’t shine for a whole year.
They really lay it on thick in The Shipping News; sadness is heaped upon tragedy that is heaped upon injustice tinged with melancholy. The absurdity of all this loss, sorrow and melodrama is the only thing keeping the movie (and the audience) from slipping away into a sea of tears it’s just too incredulous to take in. Being numbed into submission has its advantages, allowing director Lasse Hallstrom to set up some intensely morbid humour, like Judi Dench’s character pouring her dead brother’s ashes down the commode, and peeing on them. It’s all just ludicrously charming.
Inevitably, the film manages to wade through most of the heartbreak and mystery and reaches some sort of conclusion, although it’s ponderous as to what that conclusion is or what it means. But Quoyle’s character is made stronger by the experience, and there is a certain sense of satisfaction in that.
And in a true moment of life imitating art (perhaps it was planned), the child character of Bunny, Quoyle’s daughter, is played by a set of equally freaky triplets. Just one more thing to add to the weird pile.