The Shipping News is a return to Hallstrom's familiar fixation on wounded outsiders fighting uphill battles and the Oprah territory of childhood sexual abuse and über-dysfunctional family history.
Kevin Spacey, who stars in Hallstrom's version of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist E. Annie Proulx's novel of the same title, seems determined to follow in sensitive guys Robin Williams and Tom Hank's footsteps as the isolated, underachieving Quoyle. But Spacey is generally better at playing cocky, anti-social types in films like American Beauty or Seven than he is at playing angst-ridden grown-ups as he proved in the laughably somber Pay It Forward. As the tragedies pile up in Shipping News, you keep wondering when that snarky grin will crack through Spacey's sensitively knit brow and earnest expression.
The kind of man who drifts through life on a depressingly steady, sleepwalker's path, Quoyle finds love in the arms of a ravenous floozy called Petal (Cate Blanchett), who one day hops into his car at the gas station. Eventually, Petal abandons Quoyle and their young daughter Bunny (played by triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer) for a string of fresh male prey. After Petal attempts to sell their daughter on the black market for $6,000 and then dies in a car wreck, Quoyle takes the advice of elderly Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) to find new direction in the Quoyle family home place of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland.
Quoyle arrives in Newfoundland with Aunt Agnis and Bunny to reclaim the family homestead and start a new life. A gothic manse befitting Charlotte Bronte, the Quoyle house hugs the edge of a cliff and is actually tethered to the land with cables. Family history is comparably oppressive in Shipping News, like a lead weight dragged behind its uniformly grim, haunted characters. In flashbacks we're shown Quoyle's own dysfunctional primal scene, in which his father, practicing a literal motto of "sink or swim," throws his son into the ocean. That hard-knocks school-of-life instruction seems the least of the elder Quoyle's crimes.
Though he protests throughout the film that "I'm not a water person," Quoyle takes to life in the frigid fishing village. In the arms of the Killick-Claw schoolmarm Wavey (Julianne Moore) -- who boasts a dead spouse of her own -- Quoyle even begins to forget his syphilitic fishwife Petal (played as a shrill one-note slut by the overrated Blanchett).
Shipping News suggests a cross between The Wicker Man and Local Hero, equal parts perverse and homespun with its mix of macabre family histories, Seussian Newfoundland cuisine (squid burgers, seal flipper pie, partridgeberry duff) and rural coziness. The small community of Killick-Claw begins to have a transformative effect on Quoyle. In addition to courting the hot widow Wavey, Quoyle lucks into a reporter job. Covering harbor traffic and car accidents for the local paper The Gammy Bird, he discovers he has a gift for terse, poetic storytelling.
Quoyle's is the novelist's mission -- to find the story nestled within the apparent banality of small-town life. Hallstrom's own vision for Shipping News tackles a wealth of gothic intrigue not limited to piracy, necrophilia, incest and crucifixion. But that scandalous wealth turns out to be too much in a story weighed down by incident and character. While a novel like Proulx's can support such narrative plenitude without seeming unfocused, film's terser format often becomes overwhelmed. And the attendant wealth of star turns in Shipping New -- Blanchett, Dench, Spacey, Moore -- also can make the film feel about as homespun as a night at the Golden Globes.
There are so many dark secrets lurking in Killick-Claw, in fact, that the town begins to seem less folksy and charming and more like a waterlogged village of the damned. Shipping News thankfully follows more in the tradition of Hallstrom's low-key What's Eating Gilbert Grape than his abysmal, syrupy Chocolat. But despite sensitivity to the myriad ways personal history shapes us, the film often feels as emotionally constrained and rigid as the Quoyle house lashed to the hill.