Adapted for the screen by Robert Nelson Jacobs, the film takes some liberties with Proulx's coarse, haunting work, lightening up some of her desperate shadows (a child-sex ring is now a black-market adoption scam) and otherwise smoothing -- but not blunting -- her jagged narrative.
In this case, however, the house is a little different: a dilapidated relic that's been sitting abandoned on the rocky coast of Newfoundland for decades. Against all odds (and all plausibility, as the place is quite uninhabitable, especially in the winter), a family returns to discover, essentially, why it exists. Front and center is Quoyle, played by Kevin Spacey, who, like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, is running for Oscar this year on the Forrest Gump ticket. When we first meet Quoyle, he's busily falling prey to a horrid hustler named Petal (Cate Blanchett), who basically jumps his bones, takes him for what he's worth, and accidentally gives him a daughter, Bunny (played by triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn, and Lauren Gainer; fair enough, as Quoyle has two daughters in the book). Petal displays roughly the same courtesy and karma of an aspiring actress, so when she bails on Quoyle and sells their child, it's painful but not surprising.
A newspaper ink-setter by trade, Quoyle can't even afford a rear-view mirror for his car, so he's relieved when his father dies, attracting his quirky aunt Agnis (Judi Dench), who sees the passing as an opportunity to rethink and restructure the family. Petal meets a suitable fate, Bunny is retrieved, and the motley kin hit the road for that wild, eastern part of Canada with that half-hour time zone.
Set against the rugged coast of Newfoundland, what follows is the stuff of many a drama: a dire and unhappy past seeking to strangle the present and future. Through grim, elegant flashbacks as well as Bunny's observations (which she vehemently defends, repeating, "I didn't dream it; don't say I did!"), we learn that Quoyle and family played a strong role in the local fishing village, and not exactly a beneficent one. To Hallström's credit, he allows us to take in the family's horror and retribution without passing judgment.
Amid the noise and pageantry of much Hollywood fare, it may seem difficult to warm up to the seeming frostiness of The Shipping News. But Hallström has leavened the story's bleakness with great warmth, fashioning one of the finest films of the year. Upon contemplation, Quoyle's quest takes on a rich depth, signaling that with manhood comes the horror of history but also, we can hope, the fortification.