I have no doubt that “Rare Birds” is a much more honest depiction of life in Newfoundland than we saw in “The Shipping News.” In that film, the characters seemed a little too crazy to be believable and you never could forget that you were watching a movie. Why would you be weird anyway, living in Newfoundland? In “Rare Birds,” the locals are some of the sanest people we’ve seen in the movies. They do have their bizarre moments.
William Hurt stars as Dave, the owner of a dying gourmet restaurant entitled the Auk, named after a flightless species of bird who were driven to extinction years ago by a group of sailors who beat them to death. Hurt can identify with the birds; his life is taking the same direction.
Dave’s also trapped in a failed marriage, although we don’t see the estranged wife. It’s not hard to see why the restaurant is failing. Stuck on a barren part of the already barren rocky coast, it’s a million miles from anywhere. One day, Dave’s best friend Phonse(Andy Jones) comes up with a crazy idea to boost business. They’ll tell everyone that they’ve spotted a rare bird, which might attract birdwatchers from all over. The plan works like a Newfoundland charm, and Dave then hires Phonse’s sister-in-law, Alice(Molly Parker)to help out in the restaurant. Dave and Alice begin a romance, because of their age difference not despite it.
The first half of “Rare Birds” is quite wonderful, as we slowly plumb the depths of this undiscovered country, with the crazy bird plot and the odd chemistry of the three main characters. I like how Hurt gets into the role of a Newfoundlander, as he walks through scenes in a misshaped winter sweater. He’s very subtle. As for the species of bird in the film, well, it’s no surprise that they’re totally fictional. No such duck ever walked the earth. Unfortunately, the second half of “Rare Birds” veers off in a whole other direction, making “Rare Birds” feel like two different movies that fit uneasily together. “Rare Birds” goes off into farce. Soon, we get subplots about drug smuggling, secret agents, submarines, and creepy strangers. Suddenly, the world created by the film becomes too cluttered with unfamiliar faces. I get the feeling Director Sturla Gunnarsson sensed that his film was getting away from him as several of these scenes appear to have been cut. Every moment we’re away from the main characters is a wasted moment in the film.
Still, “Rare Birds” has more than enough charm to make it memorable. Hurt shows a gentleness and subtlety that’s interesting to watch in this phase of his career. One of the problems with “The Shipping News” was that you could almost spot Hollywood extras just out of the frame. They wouldn’t be welcome in a film like “Rare Birds” which has an ear for real dialogue, and goofy characters who walk around with beavers on their shirts and use the words “eh” and “flummoxed” in their everyday conversations. Strange birds.