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  Directed by
    None Listed
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 2.35:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 68.49)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Italian: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    English - Hearing Impaired, Italian - Hearing Impaired
  Extras
  • Audio commentary - producers, screenwriter, director
  • Featurette - 23 min
  • Photo gallery
  • Animated menus

The Shipping News

Miramax/Buena Vista . R4 . COLOR . 107 mins . M15+ . PAL

  Feature
Contract

Only a little more than a decade ago, Swedish director Lasse Hallström’s entire catalogue of English-language films could be counted on one finger - ABBA: The Movie, of all things. He’d made a good number of well-received Swedish films, though, and it was one of these, 1985’s My Life as a Dog, which brought him to the world’s attention and, eventually, set his Hollywood career in motion. We mention this only because, when you watch any of Hallström’s American films - particularly What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Cider House Rules - it’s remarkable how immensely warm and nostalgic they feel right to the core, as though the director had spent his entire life in a small town somewhere in Maine and was using his childhood memories as triggers for cinematic imagery and tone.

Hallström’s deft touch with nostalgia and the turbulent emotions of family relationships is a marvellous thing to see on screen. He seems to crawl right inside the story and find not only a dramatic centre to it, but a visceral one as well, and when he gets it right - as he usually does - the cinematography, editing and music score all play roles as important as those of the actors in conveying the heart of it all to an audience. Done right - as it was in The Cider House Rules - it’s pure poetry.

The Shipping News, like the director’s two previous films, is an adaptation of a much-loved novel - this time, one by E. Annie Proulx. Published in 1993 and promptly awarded the Pulitzer Prize, it’s one of those books that’s impossibly close to the hearts of those who’ve read it. A big-screen movie version, needless to say, was inevitable. But could it capture the spirit and nuances of the book? (Actually, for the answer to that question, you’ll have to ask someone who’s actually read the book, which this reviewer has not; however, mentioning this film to an acquaintance that’s a big Shipping News fan resulted in a lengthy diatribe on why books like this should never be movies at all!)

The story follows the life of Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), a meek and put-upon shell of a man who sleepwalks through life and never quite gets around to tasting any of it. He marries an abrasive woman named Petal (Cate Blanchett, barely recognisable) who treats him as badly as his father did; it barely registers, as Quoyle has been taught to accept his fate and shut up. One day, though, Petal tires of Quoyle and takes off with another man, selling their daughter Bunny (played by identical triplets, remarkably) to an adoption agency on the way. Quoyle retrieves Bunny and, at the urging of his aunt Agnis (Judi Dench), heads for the very, very cold Canadian province of Newfoundland, where his ancestors grew up. There, working as a reporter doing the shipping news column in the local paper, he manages to find self esteem for the first time in his life, with the help of a woman named, in true literary style, Wavey (played by Julianne Moore, sporting a somewhat dodgy accent).

Obviously, what we’re dealing with here is a rather internalised story which relies a lot on Quoyle’s emotional responses to the changes in his environment. And for the first half of the film, it works astonishingly well. Spacey is brilliant at this sort of role, and effortlessly conveys the turbulent inner life of Quoyle while the film progresses around him, powered by the trademark Hallström lyricism. It’s only later, once the story properly gets under way, that things start to come a little unstuck. In The Cider House Rules, Hallström had to tell a much more structurally complex tale than this in the space of a feature film, and succeeded wonderfully - undoubtedly helped along by the fact that the screenplay was written by the guy that wrote the book, John Irving. For The Shipping News, though, the task of translating the novel for the screen has fallen to Robert Nelson Jacobs, who had previously adapted Joanne Harris’s Chocolat for Hallström. Jacobs does a splendid job for the most part, but starts to rush things along later in the film by making one major assumption - that everyone watching has read the book. Those who haven’t won’t be able to fill in some of the gaps here, and as a result the emotional journey - one that rings so true earlier on - seems distant and contrived towards the end. Editing may also be to blame here; it’s hard to escape the impression that the film’s been over-cut.

While the heart of the film never quite recovers from the rushed pacing towards the end, there is a lot to like in The Shipping News, from the unique directorial touches of Hallström to the terrific ensemble cast, which also includes Scott Glenn, Welsh comic actor Rhys Ifans (best known as the gangly Spike in Notting Hill), Jason Behr and the ever-reliable Pete Postlethwaite. It’s also shot on location in Newfoundland, which lends both realism and weight to the entire thing, and makes some of the film’s later structural failures a little easier to bear.

  Video
Contract

Shot on Super 35, the movie’s 2.35:1 theatrical ratio is faithfully represented on this DVD, and naturally it’s 16:9 enhanced. At first glance the casual viewer might be a bit taken aback by the visuals on offer here, especially because both Hallström and British cinematographer Oliver Stapleton are so known for their warm use of colour. Here, everything seems desaturated and faded, often consumed by shades of white (something emphasised by the opening titles, which are black on white rather than the other way around). This visual style is, of course, deliberate, and it’s the result of the “bleach bypass” film processing technique that's so beloved by the likes of Spielberg and Fincher. It suits the desolate, wind-whipped and snap-frozen terrain of Newfoundland perfectly and does help draw the viewer into the story. It also, however, serves to highlight the various nicks and scratches on the film, particularly during some process shots (look for the inexplicable brown spot on the screen during the opening credits!) A fair amount of film grain is visible as well, but it’s not constant. A very high data bitrate has been used as a result, and there aren’t any compression problems evident.

The layer change, though, is seriously badly-placed, causing a sudden silence at a key moment in the film. It’s on a scene change, sure, but it could easily have been placed one scene change later where it would have been almost unnoticeable.

  Audio
Contract

The theatrical Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is the audio on offer here as well, and a very clean, well-defined and problem-free mix it is. A true product of the digital age, there’s absolutely no hiss to be found anywhere here, and dialogue is crystal-clear at all times (bad faux-Newfoundland accents permitting, of course!) Don’t expect an aural fireworks show, though - while the front soundstage is well used and spacious, the surrounds are barely used at all, not even for subtle ambience or atmospherics. Most of the time, the only thing you’ll hear in the surrounds is some of the music. That music score, by Christopher Young, is loaded with deep, warm percussion and soaring strings along with some more folk-oriented instruments, performed by London’s famous Philharmonia Orchestra, recorded at Abbey Road and mixed in full 5.1 surround; what a shame there’s no isolated score track on the disc.

  Extras
Contract

Only a small helping of extras accompanies The Shipping News, the very same content that appears on the US version of the disc (no surprise there - this is one of the first Miramax Home Entertainment releases locally, parent company Buena Vista taking the studio’s video rights back after Roadshow’s long-standing licence ran out). The menus are fully animated with music - almost annoyingly so, but reasonably well done (the menu highlighting is handled a little sloppily, but that’s being pedantic).

Featurette: Offered under the seriously daggy title Dive Beneath the Surface of The Shipping News (har!) this 23-minute ode to how great everybody was is the typical trailer-plus-clips-plus-EPK interviews guff, though it does offer some interesting behind the scenes footage and the occasional worthwhile snippet of interview. Certainly watchable, though we doubt you’ll be back for seconds.

Audio Commentary: Two of the film’s producers are joined by screenwriter Jacobs and director Hallström. This is essentially a producer commentary with a few extra comments thrown in from writer and director; this is perhaps understandable, as in this case it’s the producers that have spent the longest time with the film (it had been in “turnaround” for years). It’s a shame, though, not to hear more of the charming Hallström, who is one of the most listenable commentary-track participants around. Overall, a good listen, though perhaps more so for those seriously interested in film production and/or the original novel.

Photo Gallery: A bunch of production and promo pictures, presented full-screen in similar fashion to the recent Lord of the Rings mega-edition’s galleries, but with much dumber navigation that tends to be frustrating after a short period of time.

  Overall  
Contract

A brave attempt to film a revered modern novel that’s got more on the page than could ever be squeezed into a feature film, The Shipping News has a lot to recommend it - great performances, amazing visuals and a fascinating human story. If it lets itself down in its latter half, it’s only because the first half plays out so wonderfully; it’s one of those rare occasions, in the end, where you wish the film was longer so you could have had more time to click into the characters’ emotions.

Miramax’s DVD supplies a nice crisp widescreen version of the film that’s not without its small visual problems, but which ultimately does present the movie the way it’s meant to be seen.


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      And I quote...
    "A brave attempt to film a modern novel that’s got more on the page than could ever be squeezed into a feature film..."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-NS300
    • TV:
          Panasonic - The One
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-DB870
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Centre Speaker:
          Panasonic
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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