Like most of the roles Kevin Spacey is drawn to, Quoyle, the hero of The Shipping News, is an enigma who reveals his depths slowly. He's a sad-sack who exists in limbo, waiting for something to bump into him and set his life in motion. Something does ' Petal (Cate Blanchett), a two-timing floozy who beds him, marries him, cheats on him and drives off a bridge, leaving him with Bunny, his 6-year-old daughter. Trailing behind his cranky Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench), Quoyle and Bunny head for Newfoundland ' accent on the second syllable, if you please ' to rediscover himself among "his people."
The film is based on E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer-winning novel. The book's central metaphor involved a play on the hero's name, his life a coil of rope whose complex knots desperately needed untangling. Robert Nelson Jacobs' adaptation chooses water over knot-tying. Quoyle's terrified of it, and it's a recurring image, from the first scene (a young Quoyle failing to dog-paddle) to the last.
Newfoundland, of course, is surrounded by water. It's a place of fierce natural beauty, a blasted landscape fit for only the hardiest souls. A craggy countryside calls, naturally, for actors with craggy features, and director Lasse HallstrÃm has found 'em aplenty. There's Scott Glenn, with his chiseled-granite face; and Pete Postlethwaite, whose bloodhound-size schnozz all but screams "fjord." The characters sport names like Jack Buggit, Billy Pretty and Tert Card ' they're the rough-'n-ragged guys at the Gammy Bird, a local rag, where Quoyle, who's never written a word in his life, lands a job. A set of characters with this much local color has the potential to congeal into a puddle of melted crayons, yet to his credit HallstrÃm, who's not known for a detached style, uses one here. As a result, the film gains balance at the expense of emotional resonance.
Quoyle discovers his purpose in writing "The Shipping News," an account of ships-in/ships-out that he turns into a human-interest column. As his courage grows, so does his interest in Wavey Prouse (Julianne Moore), a widow with a secret or two. Turns out Wavey's not alone: The denizens of the small, dreary town have enough skeletons in their closets to host several Halloween bashes. Quoyle's ancestors were driven out, forced to haul their house across the ice floes to its current coastal location. Lashed to the coastline with cables, the house is an obvious stand-in for both Quoyle's shackled spirit and his haunted past.
Pacing, so perfect in the novel, presents the biggest problem on-screen. The film is front- and back-loaded with exposition, yet unfolds slowly in its middle. As with most page-to-screen projects, The Shipping News makes several concessions: Sunshine, Quoyle's second daughter, ended up on the cutting-room floor, and some of the more sordid aspects of Quoyle's past have been lightened considerably ' with a holiday audience in mind, no doubt. Still, the book's spirit survives, even if all its beauty couldn't translate untouched.