A couple of weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a screening of one of director Lasse Hallström’s most energetic and entertaining films. No, I speak not of his latest film, “The Shipping News,” but of his rarely-seen-in-the-U.S. (in any form, let alone on the big screen) 1977 pop culture treasure “ABBA: The Movie.” Snicker all you want over the Swedish supergroup, their surprisingly enduring brand of bubblegum Europop, or their hideous spandex- and sequin-heavy fashions–glowing from every frame of Hallström’s lightly fictionalized account of the band’s historic Australian concert tour (not to mention from the many ABBA music videos he helmed) is something that’s been sorely missing from his work in the years he’s become Miramax’s personal w***e for Oscar nods: a sense of passion and vitality that (misguided though it may have seemed to some) was utterly genuine.
Don’t go into “The Shipping News” expecting those long-lost feelings to suddenly reappear; just one look at the cast list and source material dashes any hopes of that happening. Two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey. Two-time Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore. Academy Award winner Judi Dench. Academy Award nominee Cate Blanchett. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx. Yes, in the tradition of 1999 Best Picture nominee The Cider House Rules and 2000 Best Picture nominee Chocolat, this is this season’s designated awards season heavyweight from the mighty ‘Max machine, meticulously engineered for the sheer purpose of garnering some gold, Oscar or otherwise.
The Brothers Weinstein do have their work cut out for them this time out, however, for “The Shipping News” doesn’t fall into some Academy-friendly formula nearly as easily as the last two Hallström films. For that matter, Spacey’s performance here isn’t cut from the same cloth as his showy award-winning turns. He’s surprisingly, refreshingly subtle as Quoyle, a passive, sad sack New Yorker who finally gets a taste of passion when he meets and marries the fiery Petal (Blanchett). A daughter named Bunny (Alyssa, Kaitlyn, and Lauren Gainer), a number of years, and even more extramarital liaisons later, Petal meets a tragic fate, leaving Quoyle in an even more pathetic state. Coming to the rescue is his aunt, Agnis Hamm (Dench), who convinces him to move with her to their family’s ancestral home of Newfoundland. There, Quoyle gets a job at the local paper; finds a possible new love in Wavey Prowse (Moore), single mother to Bunny’s new best friend; learns more about his family’s checkered past, in the process learning more about himself.
Sounds like prime fodder for Hallström and Miramax to do their overly calculated, campaign-ready thing, but Proulx’s novel is widely considered to be unfilmable, a fact that too clearly comes across in this limp adaptation. There isn’t much of a story arc, and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs fails to (as the film’s tagline goes) “dive beneath the surface” and offer anything particularly deep or interesting in terms of characterization to compensate — a death knell for what is obviously designed as an introspective piece. So all one is able to latch onto are the few events in the story, which mostly take the form of “shocking” revelations about the past. When the characters are ciphers, only so much shock can be milked from these uncovered secrets.
The actors do what they can. It’s nice to see Spacey not ham it up for once, as mentioned; Dench respectably does another take on a strong-willed older woman; and Moore manages to not be a complete zero in an underwritten role. Trumping all of their work is Blanchett’s extended cameo as Petal; she certainly succeeds in quickly creating an indelible character whose presence needs to hang over the rest of the film.
But in making such an impression, Blanchett just highlights how staid the rest of “The Shipping News” is. Granted, the film is supposed to be low key and slow, but the hush should only be on the surface; underneath there should be a pulse loud and urgent enough to engage one emotionally. But like Quoyle, “The Shipping News” is a passive film, playing it quiet and safe, hoping that the viewer will extend some good will towards it. It’s such a far cry from the Lasse Hallström who cinematically sold the likes of “Dancing Queen” with a buoyance that matched the melodies. It’s time for Hallström to rediscover that exuberance and purity.