Journo Film: The Shipping News (2001)

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This slow burning drama set in remote Newfoundland follows the exploits of an emotionally beaten man who returns to his ancestral home to reclaim his life.

Quoyle, played by Kevin Spacey, is an ink-setter at a local newspaper and married to a crazy wife who clearly doesn’t love him. When she is found dead after running off with his daughter, Quoyle and his daughter head up to the icy landscapes his father came from to get away from the past.

Once in Newfoundland Spacey is picked up as a reporter at the local paper even though he has never been a reporter. He is assigned the shipping column.

The film is an excellent meditation on letting go of the past, bolstered by some breathtaking performances.

The Shipping News is a like a who’s who of excellent character actors. It stars Kevin Spacey and supporting him are Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Pete Poselthwaite, Rhys Ifans and Scott Glenn.

Most of the characters have some incident in their past that they are trying to put behind them. This is represented metaphorically by the giant creaky and dirty old ancestral home of the Quoyle’s. The old house which was so fragile it has to be anchored to the cliff face by big metal girders, it is also haunted by the sins of the family in the past and the film repeatedly cuts back to a shot of the house being dragged across the ice to the cliff face it now stands when the families mis-deeds caught up with them and the had to move. The house is also literally haunted by the old Quoyle cousin who stalks the house at night.

By the end of the film the house blows away in a storm and Spacey muses “Headline: Deadly storm takes house, leaves excellent view.”

What can journalists learn from the film?

Despite having no experience in journalism Spacey actually does a good job of reporting, after a while.

His first attempt at covering a car accident does not go well. He has to run off to throw up. When he gets back he is so shocked by what he’s seen he writes ‘war and peace’ and not a news story. He over writes the copy because he is too emotionally overwhelmed by the story.

Then when he tries to write up the shipping news he is the opposite, too dull. The editor tells him it is too boring, it should be simple write about boats coming in and boats going out.

Spacey can’t understand how he can get a better story by just writing about boats coming in and boats going out. So he chats to the owner of a boat he likes the look of. After just a few exchanges he finds out that the boat was once owned by Hitler.

The story makes the front page and the paper receives a record four calls!

This goes to show that there can always be a good story in the most dull looking of places. All it takes his the sort of person who will ask the right questions and take the time to have a good nose around. Getting under the skin of a place, no matter how boring it seems, will always pay off.

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