Keep the Home Fires Burning


Lasse Hallström has warbled the Academy fight song for Miramax three Decembers running now, and The Shipping News is, in most respects, exactly what you’d expect from Oscar’s pet humanist: literal-minded, liberal-lovin’, and cushy with embroidered-pillow truisms. Women are strong, ancestry is destiny, home is where the heart is, and, as we’re informed twice, “Tea is a good drink; it keeps you going.” Hallström and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs even have the nerve to squeeze in a few more teary outbursts and Big Revelations in adapting the already overstuffed tragiwhimsy of E. Annie Proulx’s novel. As in the director’s previous pair of chicken-soup sermons, the backdrop is a wintry hamlet embalmed in storybook isolation, but the fable-telling here is more attuned to character and largely apolitical—no candied tolerance-yes platitudes à la Chocolat (which Jacobs also scripted), none of the abashed pro-choice posturing of The Cider House Rules. In lieu of vaporous message-mongering, the languid, episodic narrative—centering on hapless sadsack Quoyle (Kevin Spacey)—streams along by the gentle force of a convincing melancholic undertow, a dejection and longing that’s not so much surmounted as sustained.

Of course, that sadness often congeals into sticky bathos, and the script is soggy with waterlogged metaphor. Its tidy psychology boils down to a deathless childhood memory in which Quoyle’s brute father attempts a sink-or-swim experiment with his boy, who remains submerged for decades in a brackish marsh of humiliation and self-loathing, plagued by dreams of drowning. The adult Quoyle is slumped and colorless as a sack of potatoes, choke-voiced and congenitally apologetic. (In the novel, Quoyle is obese and has a deformed chin—his original sin being “a failure of normal appearance”—but the filmmakers refrain from saddling Spacey with fatsuit and prosthetics.)

Fittingly, it’s pouring rain the day Quoyle meets his predatory wife, Petal (Cate Blanchett), a gum-snapping trash siren and, apparently, a serial kept woman. Their shotgun marriage launches the Job-worthy litany of misfortune that impels Quoyle’s journey to a fishing burg in Newfoundland with his small daughter, Bunny (Alyssa, Kaitlyn, and Lauren Gainer), and maxim-dispensing Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench). In the conveniently coastal land of his forefathers—blanketed by leaky snow in the middle of May—the hydrophobic native son can confront the monsters of his deep. “I’m not a water person,” he says, over and over. Quoyle installs himself at the local fish-wrap newspaper (The Gammy Bird), broods over his increasingly troubled child, and initiates a clumsy, intermittent courtship of another life-battered single parent, Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore).

And so the healing and self-discovery begin, following a slow but airtight schedule. Yet the bittersweet pull of The Shipping News—crystallized in the patient, fluid camerawork and muted, wistful performances—preempts full-circle resolution. Spacey, who’s flirted with self-parody the last few years, is confidently passive here; Quoyle’s guilt-ridden fears about Bunny—that she’s consigned by genetics and scarred early experience to the same outcast misery as her father—is achingly palpable. Hope springs finite, and the snow never quite melts here in Newfoundland. (Oliver Stapleton’s gray-tipped, translucent cinematography is unromanticized and soaked to the bone.) Late in the film, Quoyle asks his aunt, “When somebody hurts you that much, does it ever go away? Is it possible?” She readily offers a chin-up rejoinder, but the movie itself isn’t so sure, and it’s this ambivalence—a kind of principled timidity—that is The Shipping News‘ strongest asset.

Irreparable grievances and fairy-tale motifs also intermingle in Behind the Sun, Walter Salles’s spare follow-up to Central Station (1998). In scorched-earth rural Brazil in 1910, a poor family of sugarcane farmers and a wealthy clan of landed gentry are embroiled in an ageless blood feud. The nascent passion of the battle (sparked by a property dispute) has long since hardened into a well-oiled machine, running on a ruthless timetable maintained by the opposing patriarchs. The last minion to fire a bullet, peasant son Tonio (Rodrigo Santoro), is set for elimination as soon as the dried blood on his victim’s shirt turns yellow in the sun. Tonio, soon to fall in love with a fire-breathing dreamgirl (Flavia Marco Antonio) from a visiting circus, asks for a truce, but neither side seems much interested. His father (José Dumont), a vengeance-obsessed ogre, is so stubbornly resigned to his sons’ planned obsolescence that he hasn’t bothered to give a name to Tonio’s inquisitive little brother (Ravi Ramos Lacerda).

Featuring moments of visual poetry as incongruous as anything in Kandahar (notably a spinning maiden on a makeshift trapeze), Salles’s film, inspired by the novel Broken April by Ismail Kadaré, originates in Brazil’s long history of the badland vendetta, though its themes stretch as far back as Aeschylus and as near as the contemporary suicide warrior—the lethal fundamentalism in Behind the Sun takes the form of zealous family loyalty. The movie’s subject is brotherly love in all its extremes; the trajectory is grimly inevitable, and yet its final descent still manages to startle.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 18, 2001

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