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11 March 2002

Wet and windy

Watching Hallstrom's film was like watching the process of rigor mortis.

By Philip Kerr

Five years after Columbus discovered America, another Italian, named Giovanni Caboto, sailing a ship owned by the English king, Henry VII, stumbled upon a lump of rock in the North Atlantic about 400 miles wide. Caboto glanced over the island and, already bored to distraction, could think of no other suitable name for his rock than New Found Land. Then, worried that the folks back in Genoa would laugh at him for discovering the world’s largest bird sanctuary, and in the hope that his discovery might be blamed on the English, Caboto changed his name. It says everything about the people of Newfoundland that they did not follow Caboto’s example and do the same for their island. Wisely, John Cabot, as now we know him better, disappeared off the face of the earth in 1498. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Newfoundland. This, the newest province of Canada (it was incorporated in 1949), is a place so dull that even Canadians feel emboldened to make jokes about it; and the only visitors they ever get there are the hapless Concorde passengers who are sometimes obliged to put down at Gander Airport for eight hours when the plane’s Amstrad stops working.

I have been able to discover only three interesting facts about Newfoundland: one, Newfoundland is home to an eponymous breed of large dog – a dog so stupid that it tries to fetch not sticks from the sea, but drowning Newfoundlanders; two, E Annie Proulx wrote a tedious novel about Newfoundland that won the Pulitzer Prize; and three, there are no cinemas on the island – which is perhaps not such a bad thing, because at least the Newfies will be spared watching The Shipping News, Lasse Hallstrom’s very boring film of Proulx’s equally boring book.

Think of Wolfgang Petersen’s movie The Perfect Storm, but without the storm, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this film, starring Kevin Spacey, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore and Judi Dench, is like. Even in the absence of plucky Finisterre, BBC Radio’s Shipping Forecast provides more and better entertainment. In short, the script would have made a marvellous libretto for English National Opera, especially as the film includes a scene where Dame Judi is seated on the lavatory.

Spacey plays Quoyle, a sleepy-eyed, woolly-hatted dullard who is the diametric opposite of the smart, anarchic character he played in American Beauty. Abandoned by his no-good wife, Petal Bear (played by Blanchett – an actress whose fat lips and prominent cheekbones lend her a pugilistic air), Quoyle and his precocious young daughter are taken under the wing of his Aunt Agnis (Dench). Her solution to the problems of this dysfunctional family is that they should all leave the US and start a new life at their family’s ancestral home in Newfoundland.

Once on the island, Quoyle’s inert qualities and lack of conversation soon mark him out as a typical Newfie; he gets a job at the local newspaper, writing up the shipping news, the main topic of interest for the community’s many fish heads. Aunt Agnis reveals that she is really Quoyle’s mother, and that he is the product of an incestuous union between her brother and herself when she was just 12. (So what else is there to do in Newfoundland but have sex with your sister? Even the dogs look nervous in the wintertime.)

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At this stage, most sensible men, facing the rest of their lives in Newfoundland, would have hanged themselves. But then, most men don’t have Julianne Moore living down the road; and unaccountably Moore’s character, Wavey, seems to find Quoyle attractive. Perhaps she just likes Quoyle’s woolly hat, which he seldom removes, even when washing his hair. As the long, dark, cold months (and that was just the summer) pass slowly, Quoyle comes to believe that Newfoundland is maybe not so bad for a country where the locals have six different words for snow: sno, sneau, snowe, snoe, snot and sneaue. And gradually – as gradual as glaciation, it seemed to me – our heroic dullard finds himself.

That’s what people of limited intellectual capacity do these days – especially young people and Americans: they go somewhere alien and inhospitable, like Newfoundland, and find themselves. Obviously, this is all Freudian claptrap. What they really find is that, having escaped from the telly, text messaging, the internet and Gameboy Advance, they can hear, like the prophet Samuel, the still small voice of thought. (I’m an atheist, OK?) Hearing that one little thought, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they realise, like Descartes, that they are alive after all. For all the good it does the poor sods.

In The Shipping News, the film-makers accompany this laborious process of finding oneself with a lot of nonsense about knots. For some reason (it may be the putative proximity of Ireland – did you know that St John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, is nearer to Ireland than to Winnipeg, another boring Canadian town?), they do it in Irish accents, and with the kind of diddly-dee tabouret-and-bagpipes music you might normally expect from a “filum” by Jim Sheridan.

Watching Hallstrom’s film was like watching the process of rigor mortis. The last time I was as bored as this in the cinema, I was watching Iris. Which leads me to suppose that, were it not for the apparent lack of cinemas on the island, The Shipping News might well prove to be as phenomenally popular with Newfoundlanders as Amelie was with the French. Their loss is our pain.

The Shipping News (15) is on general release

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