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Life As a House

Recalling Lasse Hallstrom's The Shipping News, I will longest remember the house around which much of the action is set. Two severe stories tall with a peaked roof, the house was once perhaps a steel blue, but time and relentless wind have rendered it a battered gray. An obvious aberration on a fearsome seacoast promontory, the house is strapped by metal guy wires to the bare rock on which it sits. We understand the meaning of the house at a glance. Its very existence is an act of stubborn will, its endurance uncertain in the short term, highly unlikely in the long -- just like the human lives it will shelter.

Adapted from E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Shipping News is peopled with a menagerie of damaged souls. Everyone has a secret. Our protagonist is a Poughkeepsie ink-setter named Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) who has always felt himself a failure. He is haunted by a memory of almost drowning when his father threw him into a lake demanding he learn to swim. One day for reasons that are inadequately developed, Quoyle is panhandled for breakfast by the town floozie, Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett), who pays her debt with a vigorous roll in the hay -- his first, we presume. Pregnancy results. Quoyle is a father, and an instant later a cuckold. He likes the former and tolerates the latter for years.

Then Petal is killed in an accident, and before Quoyle can recover, his parents commit suicide. That's when his aunt Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench) shows up and suggests he and his 8-year-old daughter, Bunny (Gainer sisters, Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren), relocate with her to the strapped house in a small fishing village in Newfoundland where she and Quoyle's father grew up. In his new home, Quoyle lands a job with the local newspaper whose gruff owner, Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), would rather be a fisherman. At the paper, Quoyle comes to loggerheads with editor Tert X. Card (Pete Postlethwaite) and becomes best pals with "foreign correspondent" Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans), an amateur sailor who set out north from Brazil, missed his destination of New York just a tad and ended up cribbing international stories off the radio. Around town, Quoyle makes the acquaintance of beautiful but taciturn Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), director of the local child-care center. After a time, quietly, but as we know it must, romance blooms. And still the wind howls. And sometimes the sea roars.

Since The Shipping News arrived in New Orleans a month and longer after its appearance elsewhere, I came to the picture with a certain advantage over critics who saw it with expectations soaring on the accolades Proulx garnered for her book. I knew reviewers had greeted the film with muted enthusiasm and even disdain, so my own expectations were happily much lower. Critics elsewhere have complained that the story is fundamentally plotless and that the characters are too resolutely quirky. They are right about the former point, but I wonder if objecting critics made the same complaints about colorful characters when reviewing Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenebaums, for instance, or Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World. In short, I think the novel's triumph is causing, in some quarters, the film to be dismissed too easily.

Sure, Hallstrom overworks the water imagery. And as is so often true when challenging novels are adapted into two-hour movies, certain passages seem foreshortened and arbitrarily indistinct, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope. Petal's horrifying attempt to sell Bunny to a black-market adoption agent, for example, is announced and then dropped. Agnis' romantic life in her years away from Newfoundland is revealed in a way that supposes to startle us but doesn't. Quoyle's struggle with Tert over a story about oil tankers is given too much fanfare and too little flesh. And frankly, in defense of the arduous craft of writing, it's more than a little preposterous that a man like Quoyle can succeed at it so quickly.

Still, these are all niggling complaints, and I hasten to assert how successful this movie is. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton has burned the rugged Newfoundland seacoast and the symbolic emblem of that defiant (and at once trapped!) house into my memory forever. The acting is knock-dead terrific with Spacey and Blanchett, in particular, going places they've never been before. And though this film isn't billed as a comedy, it is sneakily and persistently laugh-out-loud funny. How cheesily perfect that Petal sells burglar alarms for a living. How hilariously true that the first words out of Quoyle's mouth after Petal deflowers him are, "I love you." How dead-on that the first story Quoyle writes is about 10 times longer than printable. And nobody in my knowledge has ever made such effective mirth of the art of writing headlines.

So don't let the disappointment of others lead you astray. Whatever its flaws, this is a film with much to enjoy.

click to enlarge Slowly but surely, love blossoms between Quoyle (Kevin Spacey, right) and Wavey (Julianne Moore) in Lasse Hallstrom's The Shipping News.
  • Slowly but surely, love blossoms between Quoyle (Kevin Spacey, right) and Wavey (Julianne Moore) in Lasse Hallstrom's The Shipping News.
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