The Shipping News marks the fourth (the less we talk about the aberrant Something to Talk About the better) major English-language film from Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom since the success of My Life as a Dog brought him to America. After a tentative start with the little-seen Once Around, Hallstrom defined both his style and his interests with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and has continued to develop that approach and those preoccupations through The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and now The Shipping News. Hallstrom is the perfect justification for the auteur theory of film criticism: a director who isn’t writing his own screenplays or providing the source material (all four films are based on novels), but whose films are very clearly his and are remarkably consistent not just in tone, but in theme and specifics. For example, each contains a symbolic object — the house in Gilbert Grape, the rules in Cider House, the mother’s ashes in Chocolat, the house again in The Shipping News — that must be destroyed in order for the characters to attain freedom and move on to their destinies. Obviously, Hallstrom’s particular genius lies in his ability to choose sources that are in keeping with his own concerns. The fact that he’s only made four features in eight years suggests that this is not as simple as it sounds. The Shipping News more than fills the bill in this regard, offering Hallstrom all the elements necessary to create the kind of personal, quirky intimate epic we’ve by now come to expect. From the very beginning, Hallstrom’s control of his film is evident. His use of symbolism (in this case, water imagery), his sense of place (Hallstrom’s characters truly inhabit the worlds of his films), and his own set of morals and ethics are established quickly — and he never loses his grip on any of them. The Shipping News is an assured, frequently powerful and constantly entertaining work. It tells the story of Quoyle (Kevin Spacey, evidencing no hint of the preciousness that sometimes marred K-Pax), a man beaten down by a cold father, who winds up — thanks to circumstances and the influence of his no-nonsense Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench in yet another impeccable performance) — at his ancestral home in bleak Newfoundland and slowly finds himself through a series of events and realizations. This is by no means an especially easy film, particularly for any viewer looking for the lightness of tone found in Chocolat. But then Chocolat, while boasting a souffle of a surface, wasn’t really the pure confection it was often taken for: It encompassed wife-beating, xenophobia, intolerance and personal obsession. In other words, a great deal of darkness simmered under the surface of Chocolat. The Shipping News is something of a reverse variant on that. Here, it’s the surface that’s dark — with a story involving cruelty, abandonment, incest and even murder. The lightness of touch lies beneath that forbidding surface. Even so, it’s a far less comfortably packaged work than Chocolat, being more in line with Gilbert Grape and Cider House. Rather than offering traditional happy endings, these films offer the hope of happy endings. The Shipping News ends on a note of promise and possibilities, not actual solutions. This may or may not make it appreciably deeper than Chocolat — which offered both a happy ending and a world of possibilities — but it does make for a film destined to be less of a crowd pleaser. It’s a wonderful film, but sometimes imperfect. The screenplay’s insistence on changing Quoyle from the novel’s uninspired and uninspiring writer who lands a job at the tiny newspaper in Newfoundland to the far-less-probable ink-setter who lands the same job with no experience or even desire to be a reporter is not well-reasoned. The idea undoubtedly was to accentuate the extreme change in the character’s life, but it taxes the credibility of the story in the process. Also, some of the changes depicted in Quoyle may seem a little facile … but this is carping. Hallstrom is a filmmaker more concerned with hitting deeper truths than are necessarily offered by traditional notions of realism. Minor reservations apart, The Shipping News is worthy addition to Hallstrom’s filmography, and a brilliant piece of work in its own right.
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