Mystical tale about spiritual renewal? Morality saga about the importance of family, community and roots? A tribute to the proud spirit of Newfoundlanders? Whatever this is meant to be, it is difficult to be anything but luke-warm about what is a mildly diverting but frustrating film.
Kevin Spacey is the introverted, socially awkward Quoyle, a man who pulls out of his downwardly spiralling existence when an old aunt, Agnis (a tough-talking Judi Dench), takes him back to his roots, a small town in wintry Newfoundland, Canada. Soon after arriving back east, the straight-talking owner of the local newspaper, Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), takes him on as a reporter, covering among other things, car crashes, and the shipping news. He's a Quoyle, he says, he'll know about boats. He doesn't, as it turns out.
As Quoyle starts to find his feet in the newspaper office, manned by the self-important and abrasive managing editor Tert X. Card (Pete Postlethwaite), and ever-supportive staff writers Billy Pretty (Gordon Pinsent) and visiting Brit Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans) an increasingly more confident Quoyle gradually emerges. In time he even begins to take an interest in a local widow Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore being beautiful and enigmatic).
This being a small town, the community is awash with rumour, secrets and hearsay, often tinged with a touch of mysticism. They call it being "sensitive", a newfie word for prescient. It seems to be contagious because Quoyle's daughter Bunny (played by triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer), starts to have crazy visions about the house after arriving.
The past as well as the future casts shadows everywhere, from the decimated Atlantic fishing industry to Quoyle's shadowy ancestors. And of course there are the recent events of his life which we get at the beginning of the film. He receives a note informing him of the double suicide of his parents. Then he learns of the sudden death of the woman he thought he loved, the trashy Petal (Cate Blanchett) who treated him like a welcome mat until she drove into the river.
With so much happening, you wish that the film would settle on its theme. But it doesn't and ends up feeling superficial. It doesn't help that the performances don't match up to their on-paper potential. Call it miscasting or just plain bad acting, but Kevin Spacey comes across as just too hopeless a case to ever hold down a job as a journalist, even of a local rag. He can barely read out aloud. He seems to be the last person to know what's happening in town. How did he get the most beautiful girl in town? Spacey goes overboard.
Judi Dench gives an untypical lacklustre performance for a part that's crying out for flashes of bravado. Cate Blanchett is deliciously down-and-dirty, although her star quality softens the edges of a part that deserved to be even more raw and real.
Director Lasse Hallstrom admitted that E. Annie Proulx's novel would be a challenge to film and one gets the sense that the end vision was never fully formed from the start. Instead Hallstrom massages image and mood. There is much cinematic play on the rickety old house that Quoyle and co. move back into, whose guy ropes sing in the wind.
Soft ambient piano chords accompany shots of sweeping panoramas, dream sequences and memorable aquatic montages that hark back to Quoyle's disturbing childhood experience of almost drowning when his father threw him in the lake to teach him to swim. Aesthetically the film is pleasing, for a while, but the story and characterisation lose out. It's as if Hallstrom is reaching out to say something meaningful, but never gets round to saying it.
Maybe you just have to be sensitive?