Quoyle is yet another of Kevin Spacey’s damaged souls, but a nice one. Quoyle is also the central character in The Shipping News, another of director Lasse Hallström’s chronicles of eccentric sweetness, based on E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and slightly less cloying than Chocolat. Poor Quoyle.
Such is the film’s overriding sentiment, that Quoyle is a victim, beaten down emotionally and by life circumstances, working so hard to find his way to some kind of solid ground. Just so, he’s introduced as a child being tossed into a lake by his cruel father. As Quoyle struggles to reach the surface, the camera locates you under water with him: the water closes in over him, he struggles for breath, bubbles churn as he works his arms and legs uselessly. The scene is alarming rather than dreamy (as drowning scenes often are in the movies), and yet, the most jarring element is that throughout the boy’s panic, you can clearly hear his father yelling at him to “Swim!” while his figure shimmers against the sky, from Quoyle’s soggy point of view. And even if Quoyle can’t hear what his father’s saying, you hear it plainly, as the boy might hear it inside his submerged head: “Ain’t got all day, boy!”
So okay, dad’s a monster. This isn’t something you couldn’t know from what Quoyle might actually be experiencing, but the film hammers home the point, as if you might miss it otherwise: you must pity Quoyle.
Such graceless emotional instruction pervades The Shipping News. Quite like another of Hallström’s quirky melodramas, The Cider House Rules, this The Shipping News is interested in laying out the interior life of its protagonist. It does so with repeated flashbacks, not only to his childhood drowning terrors, but also to evil deeds done by his pirate ancestors and the violent death of his trampy wife, Petal (Cate Blanchett), events that he hears about and then imagines in the most literal ways, in order that you not miss his torments. With these dreadful memories and imaginings in tow, Quoyle becomes yet another of Hallström’s idiosyncratic characters with dark histories. Such characters tend to look intricate and unpredictable at first, until you remember that this is a formula in itself. Consider as well that this is Hallström’s second movie featuring a harsh environment, traumatic abortion, and man-child hero as key elements, and you may be wondering if you much care about Quoyle at all.
The initial glimpse of Quoyle’s horrific childhood leads quickly into his adulthood: the drowning child morphs into Kevin Spacey, lumpy and listless while working as an inker for a newspaper in Poughkeepsie, New York. His life changes abruptly one rainy day when Petal leaps into his car at a gas station, to escape her boyfriend, and commands, “Let’s go!” (Shades of his father: you can’t help but get it.) He buys her a hot diner meal, she takes him raucously to bed. They marry shortly after and have a daughter, Bunny (played by three Gainer sisters—Alyssa, Kaitlyn, and Lauren—as she ages). Petal continues to sleep with whomever she pleases, leaving Quoyle with Bunny, until one day she takes the girl in order to sell her to a couple.
Well, this is a bad thing, and so Petal is punished by the gods of fictional payback: she dies when a car driven by her latest thug-boy-toy goes off a bridge. Traumatized yet again (and still desperately in love with the woman whom the film has asked you to despise pretty much without question), Quoyle can’t think what to do until his recently dead monster-father’s sister, Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench), shows up on his doorstep, asking to take the ashes to Newfoundland for ceremonial treatment. Taking—what else?—pity on Quoyle, Agnis convinces him to bring Bunny and move “home” with her, to discover his “roots.” Soon they’re all three living in their ancestors’ home, literally tied down with cables, against recurrent ferocious storms, and Quoyle is learning all about himself—his family and his own capacities.
He’s aided in this education by the local folk who are, of course, all charmingly weird. (Six-year-old Bunny’s version of fitting in and finding herself involves her own quirk, that is, being what the locals call “sensitive,” or prone to extrasensory perception, maybe.) Hired as a reporter for the local paper, Quoyle is assigned the “accident” beat, weekly descriptions of car wrecks, hopefully including bloody bodies and/or mangled autos. And so the job itself becomes another sort of hurdle, as he keeps flashing back to his made-up vision of Petal’s accident.
For some reason, Quoyle still impresses crotchety publisher Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn)—who has his own familial issues over water, concerning the near-drowning of his son, haunted pretty boy carpenter Dennis (Jason Behr, looking vaguely less alien than he does in Roswell). And at the office, he’s encouraged by affable writer Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans) and hassled by right-wingy editor Tert X. Card (Pete Postlethwaite). These relationships vaguely suggest Quoyle has found a community of writers, oddballs, and anxiety-prone men, into which he might fit.
His progress is aided when he takes a fancy to melancholy daycare supervisor Wavey (Julianne Moore). Her gentle manner, obvious beauty, and excellent maternal inclinations (she has a retarded son, indicate, in movie-shorthand, that she is generous and long-suffering, quite unlike the terrible Petal) are only made more attractive by the fact that she too is damaged, still mourning the loss of her fisherman husband. Her relationship with Quoyle is everything that you might expect in a Hallström movie of late—their passion is real but tentative, their mutual needs are intense but unspeakable, and their coupledom is bound to happen. (You have to wonder what happened to the man who made My Life as a Dog and Whatever Happened to Gilbert Grape?.)
In addition to finding a suitable mate, Quoyle’s emergence into something resembling adulthood involves coming to terms with his brutal ancestors and his own emotional limitations, both manifested as his overcoming his fear of drowning. This particular metaphor is, of course, no surprise, given the film’s first scene and settings, but it’s over-killed nonetheless. At least he doesn’t go the way of the decidedly non-quirky Kevin Costner in Message in a Bottle and martyr himself on the ocean blue. Instead, Quoyle learns to sail safely and discovers himself along the rocky coast.
You might imagine what aspects of Quoyle’s search made him seem a likely transfer from novel to big screen—he’s strange and yet strangely familiar, undeveloped and yet potentially developing. The sad news is that his story is so humdrum, because the film only makes these aspects into perfunctory movie-plot touchstones. Quoyle is only strange to the extent that he can remain sympathetic, and the other characters are Quoyle-developing props more than individuals. His most compelling relationship is, potentially, with Agnis (it helps that Dench’s performance is quite resolutely un-eccentric), but then you learn that she—like most everyone else in sight—has a deep dark secret that turns her into a cliché she needn’t have been.