One of the advertising lines for Lasse Halstrom’s “The Shipping News” is “dive beneath the surface,” but the film is nothing if not superficial.
The movie follows Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) through a series of events that help to bring about his delayed coming-of-age. With a tired plot and many characters that are either annoying or boring (which all of the characters are secretly afraid of being), “The Shipping News” leaves little interpretation to the viewer. Rather than making it more interesting, minor efforts to save the film from cliched status serve instead to emphasize the conventionality of the rest of it.
The film opens with young Quoyle frantically trying to swim. Quoyle’s father stands on the dock, watching and chiding his son, who throughout the remainder of the movie will repeat the phrase, “I’m not a water person.” Rising and falling in the water, Quoyle’s fate is predictably laid out in the first few seconds of the film.
As the result of childhood trauma, Quoyle continually fears disappointing his father in his young adult life. He drifts through school and jobs, finally ending up with work as a typesetter at the Poughkeepsie News. It is at this time that Quoyle learns of his parents’ murder-suicide through an answering machine message.
One wonders if anything else can go wrong in Quoyle’s life.
Of course it can.
Quoyle says he “was used to being invisible until someone noticed him.” Enter Petal (Cate Blanchett), a trashy woman who picks up men with the line, “You wanna marry me, don’t ya?” and gets Quoyle to fall in love with her. The two name their daughter Bunny, but Petal fails as a mother — she brings home random men and presents her daughter with a ring made of a beer can tab. Petal later disappears with Bunny, sells her for $6,000 to an adoption agent, and proceeds to die in a car accident.
And this is all in the first half hour.
Cate Blanchett’s performance and character, though brief, are certainly noteworthy. Petal is by no means a new character — she is the enchanting heartbreaker who leaves her lover in pieces. She doesn’t even inspire sympathy because of her apparent inability to care for anyone. But Petal has no pretensions; she doesn’t claim to be a good mother or even to love Quoyle. She is as much of a floater as he is, but less pathetic.
Once the police have rescued Bunny from the adoption agent, Quoyle cannot even tell her that Petal (to whom she alternately refers as “Petal” and “Mommy”) has died. Instead, he leads her to believe that Petal is “asleep with the angels.” We learn later that Bunny thought Petal hit the road because she found her daughter boring.
While Quoyle was waiting at home for a call about the whereabouts of Petal and Bunny, his Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) showed up and told her nephew about Newfoundland — “where our people come from.” Agnis sticks around and rescues Quoyle and Bunny by taking them to their ancestral home in Newfoundland, a barren landscape where the rules of the world as Quoyle knew it predictably do not hold. With snow in May and the “sensitivity” of certain locals with unusual foresight and intuition, Newfoundland is the setting for Quoyle’s transformation from typesetter to reporter.
Quoyle takes a job at the local Newfoundland newspaper. After telling the story of a boat that once belonged to Hitler, the strict editor tells Quoyle he can cover the story of a different boat every week. The film could have gone into more detail here; the viewer doesn’t hear much more about Quoyle’s work on the rest of these boat stories. He does, however, pursue a relationship with Bunny’s teacher, Wavey Prouse (Julianne Moore). Wavey is an interesting character with more visible dimensions than Quoyle. Honest and clever, she helps Bunny and Quoyle find their place in Newfoundland — and in a scene toward the end, all four are walking in a line holding hands.
In addition to Moore’s character, one of the best aspects of the film is the scenery, especially the house where Agnis takes Quoyle and Bunny. Standing on a rocky cliff above the ocean, tied down by cables and covered in peeling paint, the building is a striking sight. The place is starkly beautiful and the house itself is dazzling in a decayed sort of way. What is not so striking is the fact that the house is typically haunted and that young Bunny claims to feel the house’s feelings and see its ghosts.
“The house is sad,” she declares, suggesting that it wants to be released from the cables. Near the end of the film, she predicts the house’s literal fall and proudly dances around when Quoyle sees that the house has indeed collapsed. Bunny sees a skinny ghost with a white dog — except that he’s not actually a ghost but rather Cousin Nolan, who knows the family secrets and controls the fate of the house by tying mysterious knots on ropes. These sorts of details might make sense in a story, but they seem forced in this film.
Not only does Bunny see ghosts, she is also haunted by the memory of Petal. One day Quoyle returns from work to find his daughter beating her baby doll with a hammer because it is “boring.” Children in “The Shipping News” are the isolated products of trauma: Quoyle grew up in the shadow of his father’s disappointment, Bunny thinks Petal’s disappearance is her fault, and Wavey Prouse has a son whose mental impairment stems from oxygen deprivation before his birth.
The film tries to be original, and this attempt is made clear by the strange twists in a conventional plot, like when Quoyle discovers his ancestors were pirates and when Agnis reveals a history of sexual abuse by her brother. There are comical moments too, such as when Quoyle’s boss comes back from the dead at his own wake. On the whole, however, the film takes no risks and instead relies on the proven tear-jerkers of childhood trauma and the return to an ancestral home in order to find oneself.