The Shipping News Reviews
Lasse Hallström always had a taste in drama's with plenty of lighthearted elements, but with this film, he really lets the tightness of his grip on tonal dynamicity slip, as plenty of lighter, almost comedic aspects go punctuated a touch too firmly by dramatic, maybe even tense highlights, resulting in near-glaring tonal inconsistencies that are much more recurring than they should be, and shake tonal impact, with the help of something of a consistency heavy-handedness. Colorfully drawn enough for you to bond reasonably comfortably with the characters and this narrative, this story is still questionably drawn, even with its characterization, which goes plagued with overblown character traits and plot happenings that are sometimes too far-fetched to buy into, particularly when they touch the film's more dramatic and thematic elements, thinning subtlety to a considerable degree. The film has been criticized as rather heavy-handed in its script, and yes, I do indeed agree, and Hallström's role in the storytelling doesn't exactly make things any more realized, as it sometimes takes on the director's trademark atmospheric sentimentality to make the scripted histrionics all the more glaring. Of course, when Hallström signature sentimentality doesn't kick in as a plague on intrigue, he's plaguing intrigue with his signature atmospheric cold spells, established through a certain quiet thoughtfulness that is usually easier to get past in Hallström's other, more entertaining dry efforts, but actually kind of dulling here. For this, we have to place yet more blame on screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, whose efforts are plenty of clever, but not exactly consistent with the material that Hallström usually draws on with his dry directorial thoughtfulness, going bloated with aimless filler and even excess material that bloats the narrative to an unfocused point whose aimlessness only grows more and more distancing the more storytelling meanders. The film starts out pretty promising as yet another thoroughly endearing effort by Hallström, but once it gets going, it goes too slow for comfort, gradually losing momentum under the weight of aimlessness, unevenness and heavy-handedness, until the final product finds itself wearing pretty deeply into underwhelmingness. The film falls quite a distance shy of what it could have been, yet what it ultimately is is an endearing dramedy, even stylistically speaking.
Composed by the popular Christopher Young, this film's score, when actually played upon, is usually a touch too minimalist to be all that exciting, and when it does pick up, it falls into conventions, yet there's still something very tasteful about Young's atmospheric, somewhat celtic styles, which capture the drly colorful tone of the film about as much as often flat, but just as often nifty cinematography. Even style kind of loses momentum after a while, possibly because it's never truly outstanding enough for you to not gradually get used to it, but there's no denying that there is aesthetic appeal to draw you in, even if it's not as important of a compliment to the themes of this near-grimy dramedy as, say, the script. Robert Nelson Jacobs' script is instrumental in bringing about the film's downfall into underwhelmingness, because where Lasse Hallström's direction, at least at this point, was usually met with enough material for his thoughtfulness and sentimentality to be generally pretty effective, tonal and narrative structuring issues to Jacobs' efforts go a long way in defusing the final product's momentum, and yet, there's still plenty of wit to endear you to the script, which is at its most endearing when it's at its most realized with characterization. Needless to say, when these highlights in material kick in, that's where highlights in Hallström's direction comes in, with pacing and sentimental thoughtfulness that, upon finding material to draw upon, compels as a punctuation to a reasonable degree of entertainment value which Hallström establishes through subtle plays on style and wit. I'm not saying that this film's story is all that meaty, but there's still something missing out of the interpretation of this traditional tale regarding finding new depths in yourself in a new setting, and yet, when inspiration meets ambition, the film endears as a light character study, anchored by worthy character portrayals. Once again, Hallström assembles a solid cast of respectable talents, every one of whom has only so much to work with, but delivers nonetheless, at least on charisma, particularly within Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, the quickly dismissed Cate Blanchett, and, of course, leading man Kevin Spacey, whose trademark subdued charm, while too formulaic as part of a Kevin Spacey performance, is open enough for Spacey to serve as an audience avatar, but tight enough to make Spacey an endearing lead by his own right, especially when occasions of actually pretty powerful emoting kick in. I don't know if this film can afford to have all that subdued of a lead, as most everything else is too subdued for its own good, yet just as Spacey practically compels with his quiet charm, Hallström endears with his own somber charm, which is realized enough to entertain adequately, with dramatic highlights, however limited they may be.
Once the docks are reached, the final product sinks into underwhelmingness under the weight of tonal unevenness, heavy-handedness, a certain atmospheric coldness, and much meandering plotting, but through a tasteful score and visual style, clever writing, thoughtful direction and charismatic performances, "The Shipping News" charms as a fair and sometimes effective, if rather forgettable affair.
2.5/5 - Fair