You heard it here first - Newfoundland is the new Cephalonia. Just as Captain Corelli's Mandolin sent hordes of film-loving holidaymakers scurrying off to the Greek islands, expect The Shipping News to make the hitherto ignored Newfoundland (on the eastern edge of North America) the world capital of quirky characters, squid burgers and seal flipper pie. And that's fine, as is the film itself - enjoyable, funny and engaging. But it's also, as we've come to expect from Miramax-produced fare released around Oscar time, a film whose desire to make the audience feel uplifted seems more the result of several focus groups than any artistic endeavour. Distilling the Academy-pleasing essence of Lasse Hallström's last two films (The Cider House Rules and Chocolat), The Shipping News is a good-looking vessel, but it sails close to running aground.
Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) is a complete loser. He's got no job prospects, no money and, after being (ab)used by his nymphomaniac wife Petal (a gloriously slutty Cate Blanchett), no hope of ever finding happiness. He doesn't even have "the sense God gave a donut", at least not until his long-lost aunt (Judi Dench) arrives to take him and his daughter to Newfoundland, his ancestral home. Finding a job as the shipping news correspondent with the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, Quoyle heals his wounds and falls in love with Julianne Moore's widowed childcare worker.
So, what we've got is your basic Hollywood drama of self-discovery - resting heavily on Spacey's talented shoulders. Trouble is, he hasn't got the material to work with. Whereas in the past his best performances have been as seemingly downtrodden characters who startle everyone when they reveal their hidden depths (Verbal in The Usual Suspects, Lester in American Beauty), his character here is so wimpy he could open his own chain of burger bars. Denied the chance for any serious thesping, Spacey parades Quoyle's vulnerability with the subtlety of a man carrying a placard reading: `Look at me! I'm acting!'.
Fortunately, with a supporting cast that includes Scott Glen, Rhys Ifans and the sublime Pete Postlethwaite, Spacey gets more than enough support to stop him from drowning. And Newfoundland is so stuffed full of lovably quirky, warm-hearted characters you'll never be anything less than entertained.
That may prove a problem to anyone familiar with the darker aspects of E Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning source material - in particular the subplot about the abuse suffered by Dench's character - as these murky elements are airbrushed over in the headlong dash towards a gooey ending. But regular punters are likely to leave the cinema feeling happier than when they went in, even if they're also plagued by the suspicion they've been rather cunningly manipulated.
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Lasse Hallström is blatantly going for Oscar gold with this defiantly MOR drama, but some likeable characters and excellent supporting performances make up for the generously applied syrup.