What a wonderful cast! Kevin Spacey as Quoyle, Judi Dench as his Aunt, Cate Blanchett as the hard, man-and-child eating mother of Quoyle’s daughter, and Julianne Moore, as the woman who knows how to both accept and return Quoyle’s love. The director is Lasse Hallstrom who also directed Chocolat and The Cider House Rules!
After Coyle’s wife dies he moves with his daughter from upstate new York to his ancestral home in a small Newfoundland fishing village as that is what the Aunt tells him he should do…and he is use to having a woman tell him what to do. Quoyle is a profound loser thanks to how his father treated/mistreated him---e.g., threw him in a pond to swim or drown and belittling his every effort so he has low self-esteem and wanders from job to job until he meets Cate Blanchett.
The Cate Blanchett character, Petal, is on the run from one man and she immediately seduces Quoyle, has his child which she ignores, and walks all over Quoyle having affairs right in his face. Petal gets tired of the life with Quoyle and is bored by the idea of being married to him and raising a child, named Bunny, so she finally decides to desert Quoyle and run off with Bunny---only so she can sell the child and start another less boring life with her new boyfriend. A car accident leaves her and the boyfriend dead. In the midst of her deserting him, Quoyle is bringing the ashes of his parents home, (his mother and father killed themselves in a joint suicide pact).
As you can readily see, this is not a comedy, not a fun filled romp in the sun. It starts out a dark and humorless tale. Comedy is mixed in along with mystery, but at its heart is drama. In the first part of the movie what keeps it from going under into depression is how vibrant and powerful Cate Blanchett is on the screen as she portrays Petal. She brings a vitality and energy to her relatively brief role that is riveting. (Question: is she evil? Well, obviously, she doesn’t come through as a very nice person. But, why is she this way? We don’t know, but we can make some important guesses. Like Quoyle, she also probably was the product of a dysfunctional family. However, instead of becoming meek and letting people walk all over her, she learned to walk all over others. She was also a person with a brain chemistry (personality) that requires excitement in order for her to be comfortable/happy---a fact that she doesn’t understand herself. She craved/needed excitement. She could have gotten a job as a sky diver, as a stock car racer, as a stripper, as a police officer or undercover agent and lived more productively. The last person in the world she should have married was Quoyle. Life is about choices. Life is about understanding yourself well enough so that you make the right choices. Neither Petal nor Quoyle are capable of making decent life choices at the beginning of the movie.)
Another thing that makes you continue to stay with the film and not give up on it is the mystery. What is the Aunt up to? Where is this story leading us? You see the Aunt come to Quoyle’s house and steal his father’s ashes. This is not something that people normally do??
So the three of them set off for Newfoundland together. They go to the ancestral home. Snow is on the ground. The home sits on the rough coast. It is literally tied down by big cables so it won’t sway in the strong winds. The home has been abandoned for years and is a wreck. Quoyle thinks it is crazy to stay there. The Aunt simply sets about moving in and getting the place fixed up. Quoyle goes to the local paper to get a job because he had a menial laboring job at a big city paper. Over Quoyle’s protests, the owner (played by Scott Glenn) of the paper gives him a job as a reporter. This is where the title of the movie comes in. He is to report the shipping news---write up for the paper the boats that come in and out of the harbor.
And now we begin to see Quoyle’s transformation. He comes to town a beaten down man, a person with little or no self-esteem, a man who has survived his parents, who has survived his mean spirited wife. He knows how to survive, to keep hanging in there and raising his daughter, he understands commitment, but he doesn’t have a clue about how to enjoy life.
We now find out why the Aunt stole her brother’s ashes, the ashes of Quoyle’s father. She goes to the outhouse and dumps the ashes into the hole and then shits on them. Well, that sure gets your attention! You now know that for some reason she profoundly hated her brother, but you will have to wait to find out the answer as to why. Good movies do that to you, they tantalize you with a mystery and make you wonder what is going on.
Meanwhile Quoyle is beginning to learn the family history…and it is anything but a nice one. The Quoyle’s were vicious murderers who preyed upon others. Finally they were driven off the island where they had lived and dragged the Quoyle house across the frozen sea to another location where it sits today. We eventually learn why the Aunt hated his father---the father had raped her when she was young and she became pregnant.
So lots of terrible things have happened in the past. But, this is not a story about the past; it is a story about the present and the future. Quoyle meets Wavey (Julianne Moore), Quoyle does well on his job, Quoyle begins to evolve into a mensch, a human being that has self-esteem. The acting here is excellent as we see the transformation.
As the movie unfolds we see what it is all about. This movie is all about overcoming hardship. Wavey is overcoming the fact that she has a brain damaged child she is raising and that her bum of an ex-husband deserted her; Scott Glenn, the newspaper owner, is plagued by a family history where all of his ancestors drown while fishing; the Aunt is overcoming being raped by her own brother and the more recent loss of her lover; and Quoyle is overcoming his having been betrayed by his own parents and his wife. And, by the end of the movie all succeed in overcoming their pasts and becoming alive to their present moments with hope for the future. You succeed by building self-esteem. You build self-esteem by successfully DOING, by successfully living life. Quoyle becomes a newspaper writer, he swims when his boat sinks, he risks a new love relationship and succeeds in it, as does Wavey.
The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by E. Annie Proulx with the screenplay written by Robert Nelson Jacobs.
The setting for the story is Newfoundland, New-found-land. It is a remote island, harsh and demanding, a hard place to survive in, a place that either builds or degrades character. Such is life for us all. Yes, some of us may live in warmer climes; however, that environment can tend to be illusory. The real environment for all of us is a tough one of risk taking. Few of us have perfect parents, few of us are fortunate enough to find the perfect person to love the first time we try. Life is challenging and those who succeed at it, who build their self-esteem through successfully struggling and winning, build our values, our character, our ability to have empathy and love for others.
Early in the movie we hear Quoyle explain that he is separating his emotions from life, that he is counting on nothing, he has gotten used to being invisible. After having sex for the first time with Petal he announces that: “I love you.” For the first time in his life he loves and desires to be loved in return. Fortunately, he begins to get some of that from his daughter Bunny. But with Petal constantly abusing him, he needs more in order to begin to have the self-esteem necessary to become a more secure and joyful person.
How you build self-esteem is a theme. How you deal with your past is a theme. But another interesting theme is how some people are “sensitive” and can know things. Quoyle’s daughter is one of these people and so is Jack the newspaper owner. The daughter “hears” the house talking. Jack knew where to find and rescue his son when he was lost at sea. Jack also “knows” that Quoyle will make a good person to hire.
We see Quoyle begin to change, for example after the Hitler boat article he gives the following “headline”: “Lumbering idiot stands proud for a change.” When the editor of the paper rewrites his oil tanker article completely hoping he will quit the job, he protests to the owner, he stands up for what he believes in.
When the Aunt says: “I don’t believe in dwelling in the past.” Quoyle asks her: “Then what are we doing here?” She replies: “Building a future.”
Later in the movie he asks the Aunt: “When someone hurts you that much does it ever go away?” He is speaking of both her pain and his own. She shows him a picture of the woman she loved. The answer is that no matter how terrible the pain it is possible for it to go away, for it not to twist and destroy your life. The choice is yours!
At the end of the movie the house has been destroyed. The Aunt says: “It’s alright. Worse things have happened to both of us.” Quoyle says: “I believe a broken man can heal.” He then gives the headline: “Deadly storm takes house. Leaves excellent view.”
Remember that the story is working with metaphors. The house is a metaphor, the sea and harsh climate are metaphors, the history of the Quoyle family is a metaphor. They are metaphors because they are telling us about things that are greater and more important than just what they specifically represent. We have to blow away the houses, the old things that are haunting us; we need a fresh start, to live in the present. Yes, our life history is important, but we must struggle to rise above any part of that history that would drag us down. One way that we do this is to become “sensitive” people---people aware of and in touch with our feelings and the feelings of others.
Some interesting notes. Cate Blanchett in one scene is very pregnant. This is not a costume, she really was pregnant. The word “quoyle” means a rope that is “coiled” up in a circle on the deck of a boat---sailors refer to it as a Flemish coil. The circle of rope is only one layer thick so that you can step on it like a mat. Life stepped on Quoyle as it does for many of us. You can expect that to happen. The question is, What do you do when that happens? The actor who plays Quoyle’s daughter in the movie is not one child actor, it is three! The role was shared by triplets! In the novel this child was sold to pornographers and in the novel there was two children. In the novel the Aunt takes the ashes AND the urn they are in. In the movie the screenplay has the Aunt exchange the ashes in the urn for ones she has in her purse---thus changing the tension in the scene and showing how she has planned this deed well in advance. The scene where you see them dragging the Quoyle house across the ice is not a digitally created scene. They actually dragged a house across the ice. However, the one they dragged was only one story high and they digitally added the other story. The old Quoyle house was built by the film crew and they built it to look old and run down.
How do you make a film high art, more than just a visual retelling of the book? You do things that the writer can’t do; you use the visual medium to its fullest extent. One of the best examples of this is how we watch Quoyle as a young boy drowning and then morphing into an adult. The way the screenwriter changed the story when it came to the stealing of the ashes, knowing that this would heighten the tension.