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Can a man come home to a place he never saw before in his life? Can ghosts from a family's past crush a man's already broken spirit? Can a man afraid of the water learn to live with the sea? The Shipping News attempts to answer these and many more questions in its own thoughtful way.

Kevin Spacey plays Quoyle. More of a doormat than a man, Quoyle works as an inksetter for a newspaper in a small New York town. One day, Petal (Cate Blanchett) comes and deflowers our hero. She gets pregnant. Petal sticks around for a few years, letting Quoyle take care of their daughter, Bunny, while she brings home sleazy guys from bars.

Just when Quoyle believes life can't get any worse, Petal runs off with Bunny. Not long after that, he gets a phone message telling him of his parents' death. Fast upon the heels of that message comes a call announcing Petal's death in a car wreck. Thankfully, Bunny survives and returns to her father.

Quoyle's Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) shows up to say goodbye to her brother's ashes, and hauls Quoyle and Bunny off to Newfoundland, the family's ancestral home. Living in Newfoundland requires a will of iron. Snow still rests on the ground in May. Residents lash houses to the ground to keep them from blowing away. The sea gives life and takes it back again.

Could life get any worse for our hero? Most definitely.

When he arrives in Newfoundland, Quoyle gets a job at the local paper writing the shipping news ("Boats come in, boats go out") and reporting on -- yes, ladies and gentlemen -- car wrecks. According to the locals, they happen at least once a week, and a good car wreck always sells more papers. Here lies a big problem for Quoyle. His first few assignments bring back painful memories of Petal.

Add to this heap of woes the fact that Quoyle can't swim, and everyone in town keeps telling him he needs to buy a boat and get out on the water. I kept wondering when Quoyle would reach for the nearest shotgun and go either postal or suicidal. But he didn't. Something about the place stirs him deep inside. He finds purpose, heritage, his sea legs and possibly even love.

With the cast this film sports, I expected a bigger production. For crying out loud, over half the lead cast sports either an Oscar or an Oscar nomination. And the supporting cast packs a lot of talent too.

The Shipping News tells its story quietly. Everyone gives understated, real performances -- the most difficult kind to give. Revelations do not present themselves in earth-shattering ways. Characters take their tragedies in stride.

The movie also gives the audience a slice of Newfy life. At times quirky, laugh-out-loud funny, sniffly, embarrassing, tragic and heartwarming. Gut-wrenching secrets reveal themselves in calm, almost offhand ways. This is Newfoundland, where one can survive everything except, perhaps, the sea.

Jenny Buehler

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