Anchors aweigh

Unmoored hero finds safe harbor.

THE SHIPPING NEWS

directed by Lasse Hallstr� with Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, and Cate Blanchett opens Dec. 25 at Guild 45, Meridian, and others

LIKE ANNIE PROULX'S Pulitzer Prize-winning 1992 novel from which it's been adapted, The Shipping News is full to bursting with eccentricity and the character-shaping effect of harsh geography. It also has a puckish take on regeneration, suggesting that Quoyle, its hapless, apologetic, wide-ranging failure of a man, may be saved by writing.

Well, yes, writing—and a return to the stark Newfoundland roots he barely knew he had, and a properly good woman (in place of a deliciously bad one), and the comfort of friends, and the legacy of family . . . and all of that. But primarily writing. It's an idea as bracing as smelling salts.

We first meet Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), ginger-haired and dull-eyed, in a dead-end newspaper job in upstate New York. Unexpectedly, and at a dazzling pace, he's hustled straight off his bar stool and into bed by the voracious Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett, utterly unrecognizable and hilarious).

Keep a close eye on the silvery, pinky Petal, who becomes Quoyle's wife and worst nightmare; she's not around for long but she's probably the film's best fun. When she departs, she leaves their sullen 6-year-old daughter Bunny (already well-schooled in the idea that Daddy is "boring") and a shattered Quoyle, already reeling from the sudden death of both his hateful parents. (Only Quoyle would get this news over the intercom at work.)

Enter his Aunt Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench), a sturdy product of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, who surreptitiously swipes the ashes of her brother (Quoyle's father) with a plastic grocery bag, then propels Bunny and the benumbed Quoyle into a new life in the land of his fierce, unknown ancestors.

His inheritance is Quoyle House, a creaking green wooden saltbox held upright mostly by cables and standing alone on a windswept bluff above Killick-Claw's harbor. Everything, especially making this place habitable, seems beyond Quoyle, but he begins to try, helped by the widowed Wavey Prouse (Julianne Moore, looking far too delicate for this rugged maritime life), who has a son Bunny's age.

FILLED WITH SPECTRAL sequences and watery metaphors, The Shipping News' liveliest scenes are in the rowdy dailyness of The Gammy Bird, the tiny community weekly run by editor Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), who hires our hero on a shrewd impulse supported by the infamous power of the old Quoyle name in this clannish community.

Given the thankless job of photographing fatal car wrecks and logging the shipping news, Quoyle begins to find his footing among the tightly knit staff—and discovers the inkling of a calling. Best of this gang is columnist Billy Pretty (Gordon Pinsent), who dryly instructs Quoyle how to locate "the beating heart of the story." Showing the writing trade take hold of a man isn't something the screen generally does well, but here it's irresistible.

In other respects, Spacey is the movie's stumbling block. His Quoyle is a good deal less lumpen than the book's; still, in ways you don't detect with the film's fine character actors, you see Spacey struggling, forcing himself away from his natural quickness and acerbity. Though it's an admirable try, the fit isn't there—nor is the chemistry with Moore.

The material fits better with director Lasse Hallstr�My Life As a Dog, The Cider House Rules, What's Eating Gilbert Grape). He works best in a minor key, with off-center characters; his eye for the mystical properties of the land's jagged bleakness is perfect.

Yet by the picture's end, in spite of all its bravura visuals, it seems to evaporate, to simply drift away instead of rising to a conclusion. Certainly not dull, nor even deadly literal, The Shipping News is just oddly insubstantial, like Newfoundland fog.

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