"Shipping News" was originally a best-selling novel, which I have not yet read. I can remember hearing about the novel being turned into a film for a while starting a couple of years ago - I believe there was one point where John Travolta was even considering starring. When the project washed upon the shores of Miramax, they paired award-winning director Lasse Hallstrom along with many of their usual stars (Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench) and a few other high-profile talents (Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore). With Hallstrom's record of racking up awards-season recognition for "Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat" for the studio, the Christmas release of "Shipping News" seemed assured of another victory for both the studio and the filmmakers.
But, it wasn't. Soon after "The Shipping News" hit theaters, it quickly shipped out. There's a few reasons why the audience may have not reacted kindly to the picture. Although I certainly wasn't entirely displeased with it, flaws are apparent in the adaptation. The film stars Kevin Spacey, formerly a King of the sharp-talking, quick-witted character (see "Swimming With Sharks") as Quoyle, a mild-mannered and completely unremarkable character living in a small house and working in a newspaper printing department. He stumbles across wild-child Petal (Blanchett) one stormy day and suddenly, they're married and she's pregnant. The child is born and she quickly takes control of their life, openly cheating on him and insulting him to his face. Yet, he remains calm in the face of mean-spiritedness, saying that he loves her while she essentially responds that he should leave the room.
Within a mere fifteen minutes or so, Petal is disposed of in a car accident and the character is gone before we ever really understood what made her the monster she was. Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) arrives and Quoyle and his daughter leave with her to Newfoundland, where much soul-searching is done by all involved. Quoyle finds himself working in an actual journalist position at the local paper, The Gammy Times, instead of a typesetting gig. The old home on the coast that he and child Bunny move into looks as if it'd be turned into driftwood if a stiff wind came up off the water.
Anyways, the film does not start off promisingly. With all of the fade-outs, I got the sense that the filmmakers wanted to quickly move past the Petal/Quoyle sequences. Blanchett overacts, if not terribly so - but it's just awfully difficult to believe that Quoyle would stay with such a difficult person. Speaking of difficult to believe, Spacey is not exactly the greatest choice to play the wimpy Quoyle - he's very unconvincing in the early scenes, but gets better as the character starts to change. I also liked the scenes he has with Julianne Moore, as a local daycare provider that he starts to like.
As much as I sat through "Shipping News" thinking that I had the film all figured out (all the characters - even the kid - either have A. problems or B. dark secrets, which will all be solved or smoothed over by the end), I somehow still found the picture involving. Once the film moves to Newfoundland, the picture starts to gain a subtle, quiet beauty. It sort of reminded me of John Sayles' "Secret of Roan Inish" (a better film, certainly) at times. I liked the quirky, eccentric people that populated the local newspaper and I didn't feel they were too cartoonish or ridiculous - it was one of those instances where, although I don't know any of these kind of small-town Newfoundland folk in real life, this is what I'd imagine they'd be like. Ace cinematographer Oliver Stapleton captures the remarkably beautiful scenery with a crisp, clear perspective that allows it to be cold, damp and yet it still drew me in.
I was a bit surprised how the film proceeded, but it pleased me. The film has ideas, themes and other elements to bring forth, but doesn't underline them in Big Important Scenes with a swell of music - instead, it makes its point and proceeds along on its way towards developing the characters further. While maybe a bit melodramatic here and there, I never thought the film got as sappy as it could have.
Simply, "The Shipping News" doesn't bring many new ideas or themes to its audience, but what it does have to share it shares in a simple, quiet way that doesn't force its point. It also boasts an excellent cast that does well, if certainly nobody gives the performance of their career here. At the end of it all, I actually found myself enjoying this a bit more than Hallstrom's "Chocolat".
VIDEO: "Shipping News" is presented by Miramax Home Video in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The presentation has aspects that are really fantastic, but it's kept from being outstanding overall by a noticable flaw or two. Sharpness and detail are certainly not a problem - the picture remains exceptionally crisp and clear throughout, with nice depth to the image through most of the picture.
Again, if a few problems had not been present, this would have been more impressive overall. Edge enhancement is present in several scenes and, while not major or hugely distracting, it is still noticable and a concern. The print is not flawless, either - a few little specks and marks can be seen on occasion. On a positive note, no pixelation was spotted. The film's color palette is bleak and subdued, but still seems accurately rendered on this offering, with no flaws. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones appeared accurate.
SOUND: "The Shipping News" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film certainly doesn't dazzle with its audio use, nor did I really expect it to. It maintains a nice amount of crisp, clean ambient sounds that added to the experience without calling attention to themselves. Surround use is rare and, when the rear speakers are employed, their use is hardly noticable. However, the front-heavy presentation still manages to offer very pleasant audio quality and an enjoyable overall sound experience.
MENUS: Miramax puts small clips from the film to good use in the animated main menu.
EXTRAS: A small-ish group of supplements are offered: a commentary track has director Lasse Hallstrom, Screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs and producers Linda Goldstein Knowlton & Leslie Holleran participating. While there are some interesting tidbits and stories delivered during the track, some may find the commentary slow going at times, as the discussion is pretty subdued. Rounding out the supplements are a 23 1/2-minute "making of" documentary, complete with interviews and some moderately interesting behind-the-scenes footage, a photo gallery and a series of "Sneak Peek" trailers for other Miramax titles, including the looooonng awaited Martin Scorese picture, "Gangs of New York".
Final Thoughts: Although it starts off rather terribly, "Shipping News" eventually gets going quite well. While not a particularly complex story, I thought the characters were nicely realized and the performances were quite strong. Miramax has provided a very nice DVD edition, with a few decent supplements and good audio/video quality. Recommended as at least a rental.