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Above the fold: Julianne Moore and Kevin Spacey in 'The Shipping News'
Doanne Gregory

Quoyle, the "hero" of E. Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News, is a big, soft marshmallow of a guy with the cringing passivity of a dog kicked long and hard. His restless wife Petal picks him up because he's convenient, and drops him because he's too grateful for the attention. She kicks him a few more times on her way out, but he expects that: He loves her still. Quoyle is so gracelessly pitiful that the reader sides with Petal. More than one reader dumped him and the book long before two women, a cold place, and some hard truths help him grow a thin blade of spine. Enough readers stayed that Proulx got a Pulitzer.

But The Shipping News as a film? American movies don't do slow transformations, let alone slow transformations of unlikable characters. Can this story be told without most viewers following Petal out the door? Yes: if a shambling plot is goosed into a focused stroll--and if Kevin Spacey plays Quoyle. Is it the same story? Not really. But the butts stay in the chairs.

The Shipping News is directed by Lasse Hallström, who made movies of the novels Chocolat and What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Those films depend on acting and humor to gloss over missteps in the book-to-screen transition; so does this one. At least one of these performances will earn a spot on the Oscar ballot (especially given the typical Miramax shove). Spacey lacks the Quoyle bulk but makes up for it with a slack shuffle and a slack face. When Petal (Cate Blanchett) rides Quoyle in what must be his first sex in decades, Spacey exudes the perfect befuddled bliss. It's not his fault that I spent the first hour thinking, That Spacey's a good actor. What this story demands, of course, is a character actor as colorless as Quoyle, someone the audience doesn't already find charming. But then the movie wouldn't get made.

Brilliant as usual, Blanchett provides Petal with furious self-absorption: Quoyle and their daughter Bunny are boring obstacles in a game that's about using stuff up and moving on. Judi Dench, her face tight with loss, plays Quoyle's new-found aunt Agnis, who is perhaps too bound to the past: She hauls her grieving nephew and grandniece up to the family's longtime home in Newfoundland in the process of exacting personal revenge. The three settle in the Quoyle homestead, a broken house precariously attached by cables to ocean-side rock. Soon enough Quoyle uncovers a family history of abuse and piracy; the creepy, trapped house conveys the weight of that baggage (much better than do the too-literal flashbacks).

Yet Quoyle also finds a job, writing up car crashes and shipping news for the newspaper of a tiny fishing town. With the position come character-rich cronies played just this side of quaint quirkiness by Scott Glenn, Rhys Ifans, and Pete Postlewaite. The faster pace of the film cheats those characters of depth; if the actors pull off a couple of enjoyable scenes, it's due to their skill and the seriocomic oddness of Proulx's situations. The pace also diminishes Quoyle's struggles to become a writer. He flails for five minutes, and then he's Chekhov. His joy seems cheaply bought.

Hallström does communicate the idea that writing stories grants Quoyle some perspective on himself and even on history. Quoyle begins courting the widow Wavy (Julianne Moore, too beautifully groomed), and his nervous clumsiness is, for the first time, offset by self-mocking commentary. But just when I was appreciating this subtle shift (and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton's brutal visuals), the movie launches into overdramatic crisis mode. Again, its resolutions seem to cost little. In The Shipping News, a family battles cultural amnesia and victimhood to discover a sense of history, place, responsibility. If the lessons arrive quickly and cheaply, are they valued? If the hero is played by a star, does the viewer imagine the achievement out of reach? Has filming made Proulx's story just another stupefying entertainment within the use-it-and-lose-it culture it once critiqued?

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