In its translation to the screen, something vital has gone missing from "The Shipping News." 

Chilled to the Bone

Annie Proulx's novel "The Shipping News," which garnered the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994, is an irresistible read. Proulx's yarn about life, love and the painful pursuit of happiness on the stark coast of Newfoundland is spun in handsomely honed prose. Eight years after her unusual characters and setting captured our imaginations, her novel finally arrives on-screen.

The result, I'm sad to say, is mixed. Though always watchable and often moving, something vital has gone missing. Lasse Hallstrom's meticulous direction, while reverent, slowly wears the viewer down. More than merely chilly, the movie feels coldblooded. Considering the number of walking wounded that make up the bulk of Proulx's characters, keeping us at arm's length seems an odd choice.

Even the incredibly talented Kevin Spacey can't quite pull us in. As the pasty, bewildered-looking and -acting Quoyle, Spacey intrigues without quite connecting. Which, of course, is the point of his emotional transformation in Proulx's yarn. But somehow, blown up larger than life on the movie screen, the character needs something more. Something to make us forget the distance and artifice separating us from the action and emotion.

One of life's apologizers, Quoyle wanders through his days as a faceless human cipher. Though he's shy to the point of paralysis, his life changes one day when a woman finally takes notice of him. Unfortunately, Petal (Cate Blanchett) is unabashedly amoral. She's so despicable even her lipstick looks as if it's trying to snarl, all sharp and pointy. As only men who have been devoid of sex and intimacy for most of their lives can comprehend, Quoyle marries this case of nastiness. This union borne of misery spawns a child, a girl they name Bunny (portrayed, quite seamlessly, by the Gainer triplets).

Fifteen minutes into the movie, Petal is gone.

So ferocious is Blanchett's performance, however, that she haunts the rest of the movie, just as she does Quoyle's thoughts. He is convinced he deserves no one better, but things change with the surprising arrival of his no-nonsense aunt (the remarkable Dame Judi Dench). With secrets of her own and their accompanying pain, she convinces Quoyle and Bunny to move with her back to the family homestead. Emotionally adrift, Quoyle agrees, never knowing that all of life's answers that have eluded him await in the rocky landscape and hardened native Newfoundlanders. Most importantly, he meets the lovely and luminous widow named Wavey (Julianne Moore) and gradually comes to believe his life matters.

Arguably, all of that sounds vastly unremarkable, but Proulx spices her novel with a sly, knowing humor; an oddly constructed though musical dialogue; and a man's transformation that is so gradual it sneaks up on the reader. Spacey subtly effects the same slow transformation: Quoyle's hunched posture straightens; his pastiness gains color. Masterfully Spacey lifts Quoyle out of his paralyzing bewilderment.

Moore brings a lovely softness to Wavey, and Dench is intractable and resolute as Aunt Agnis. But, as with the book, the main character in "The Shipping News" is the jagged, seemingly never-ending landscape of Newfoundland. Uninviting, stark and severe, it withstands the onslaught of Mother Nature's wrath as easily as it bears the sorrow of generations who try to turn it into a homeland. Standing sentinel to the pain and misery, the Quoyle clan home is perched atop a bluff so perilous the house must be tied down.

Yet these marvelous separate pieces never quite gel on-screen as they did on the printed page. Carefully rationing the warmth, Hallstrom however does manage to avoid the sentimentality that seeped from his screen version of "The Cider House Rules." But perhaps his director's pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. "The Shipping News" could use a lot more humanity.

As terrific as Spacey is in Quoyle's near-somnambulistic state, he never truly connects with the other actors, not Moore, not Dench, not one of the three young actresses playing his daughter. The irony here is that Proulx's characters and story are about not connecting.

Not surprisingly, many viewers unfamiliar with the original work will find this movie unbearable and moribund. They'll dismiss Proulx's characters as a control group for Zoloft. But those looking for something different, something aggressively artistic, "The Shipping News" won't disappoint. It won't, however, warm anyone's


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