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[whitespace] 'The Shipping News'
Headline Fever: Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench can't believe that Hitler's own yacht has turned up off the coast of Newfoundland in 'The Shipping News.'

Water Log

Kevin Spacey lives the life of a sad sack in Lasse Hallström's 'The Shipping News'

By Richard von Busack

LASSE HALLSTRÖM'S latest picture is your traditional holiday turkey with all the trimmings: the injured man learning to love again, the strangely wise child, the magical picturesque small town, Judy Dench Denching it up, as in Chocolat, in shawls and chunky sweaters, her wise, bittersweet smile signifying moist goodness underneath the tough crust. Come what may, however, the tang of E. Annie Proulx's novel keeps working its way up, despite director Hallström's attempts to maintain the film's banal warmheartedness.

The Shipping News boasts 15 fun minutes by that marvelous Cate Blanchett--more evidence she'll get a body-of-work Best Actress Oscar this year. In push-up bras and Cleopatra eye makeup, she plays a slut called Petal Bear who picks up Kevin Spacey's Quoyle--and Spacey is very spacey here, a trembling milquetoast even before the Bear gets him. Petal savages the poor man's life, breaking his heart for years to come. When she departs, she leaves behind a daughter called Bunny. Quoyle is rescued by the arrival of the aunt he never knew about, Agnis Hamm (Dench), who decides to haul Spacey back to the family roots in Newfoundland, where, one supposes, one more depressed person would never be noticed.

It could be said of Newfoundland what Flann O'Brien wrote about the west coast of Ireland, "Emigration is thinning out the remote areas; the young folk are setting their faces towards Siberia in hope of better weather and relief from the cold and tempest." Safely nested in a series of episodes about friendly, maritime eccentrics, Quoyle slowly finds himself and daughter living in the half-ruined shell of the family home. He drifts into a job at the Gammy Bird, the weekly newspaper. Meanwhile, he courts, ever so hesitantly, a widowed schoolmarm played by Julianne Moore.

Again, Proulx's fine storytelling sensibility sometimes defeats the basic cuteness of the direction, adding macabre details like severed heads, seal-flipper pies and the atrocities of the old-time seacoast "wreckers," who, like the heartless Petal, lured their victims to the rocks with the promise of a safe harbor. While Proulx has a morbid fascination with old crimes, she doesn't share that common belief that ordeals are tonic for the soul.

The film's oddity keeps one watching, and there are tasty incidents, such as a cameo by Larry Pine as a beaten-down yachtsman in possession of Hitler's boat. But Hallström identifies too strongly with Spacey's at-last monotonous twerpiness to wring enough of Proulx's dark humor out of the situation. There's not much life in Quoyle, this sad old dog. Convalescent romance, so very popular in today's cinema, seems to prevent any real chemistry between Spacey and Moore, and the unfamiliar tale ends on all the familiar notes: aerial shot, stirring music, all souls saved from drowning.

The Shipping News (R; 120 min.), directed by Lasse Hallström, written by Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by E. Annie Proulx, photographed by Oliver Stapleton and starring Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, plays at the CinéArts in Palo Alto.

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From the January 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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