A mild-mannered ink setter Quoyle's (Kevin Spacey) woeful existence is turned on its head by the promiscuous Petal (Cate Blanchett) who suddenly marries Quoyle and bears his daughter Bunny. Finding marital life boring Petal eventually runs away selling Bunny on the black market to fund her escape. (Petal dies in a car accident but Quoyle manages to retrieve his daughter.) Mired in a depression due to Petal's betrayal Quoyle's life takes a turn for the worse: his father passes away his long-lost Aunt Agnes (Judi Dench) shows up and the newly formed family (aunt father and daughter) head off to the aunt's windswept childhood home in Newfoundland. Once there Quoyle and his aunt must find work to pay for restoring the old family home and Quoyle restarts his life as a reporter for the local paper. Over the course of the next few months Quoyle has to face his own past his present difficulties and desires his dark family secrets and his fear of the sea all on the way to personal redemption and revivification.
Fine performances abound in this ensemble piece. Spacey plays the lead in perfect passivity; his almost abject terror that his daughter has inherited his "outcast" genes that will doom her to a life of misery like his own is tangible. For all her bluster Dench's Aunt Agnes is betrayed by her past which palpably haunts her many years later. The incandescent Blanchett sets the screen on fire with her portrayal of Quoyle's predatory wife Petal an unrepentant gum-snapping trashy siren and serial kept woman. Julianne Moore--as the life-battered Wavey Prouse who's the object of Quoyle's intermittent courtship in Newfoundland--turns in a some finely tuned timidity echoing that of Spacey's. A fine actor Scott Glenn isn't pushed in the undemanding role of Buggit the paper's publisher. And while Pete Postlethwaite Rhys Ifans and Gordon Pinsent are given little to do other than act like a less-physical version of the Three Stooges Jason Behr (UPN's Roswell) is electric as Buggit's estranged carpenter son.
It's become a December tradition like exchanging gifts under a tree. Lasse Hallstrom has produced yet another holiday movie that should get serious Academy consideration following in the footsteps of The Cider House Rules (1999) and Chocolat (2000). Unfortunately The Shipping News based on the novel by E. Annie Proulx may not be quite as strong as his past two; it lacks a certain subtlety and delicate touch. Also given the lack of a clear message (pro-choice in Cider House pro-tolerance in Chocolat) the pacing of the story lacks a central core and the film meanders slowly to the final scene. Even if this isn't Hallstrom's strongest work it's clear that Lasse knows how to effectively weave a story on screen.