Refined Visions 

*Amelie (R)
Miramax Zo

*The Shipping News (R)
Miramax Films

The human heart in isolation, the struggle to discover who we really are, and the possibility of second chances are the cliched truths at the center of these two wildly disparate films.

Amelie is the love child of French director Jean Pierre Jeunet who, in the past, has frightened and mesmerized with Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, both bleak visions of a corrupt world filmed in surrealistic tones.

Jeunet, it seems, finally decided to make a sweet film, but his characteristic blackness is still apparent, especially in the early scenes when we are introduced to the title character as a child.

Though wounded by her mother's mysterious and gruesome death and desperate for affection from her morose father, little Amelie grows into the winsomely beautiful and impish Amelie played by screen grabber Audrey Tautou, an ingenue with the neck and eyes of Audrey Hepburn. Still alone, she nonetheless experiences an epiphany that leads her to experience herself as the "Godmother of Outcasts," a woman with an overwhelming urge to help mankind by bringing lonely people together and healing the wounds of those hurt in love.

Amelie's quest introduces us to a wacky assembly of outcasts including her love interest, Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), another recluse who passes his time reassembling ripped-up, cast-off photos from a coin-operated photo booth. Amelie's many subplots are endearing but her cat-and-mouse game with Nino -- designed to show us the emotional toll of her damaged heart -- is ultimately annoying and overly diverting. Altogether, Amelie is a pleasant confection, stylishly filmed and nicely acted.

While Amelie is filmed in bright, flashy colors with frequent explosions of light, Lasse Hallstrm's film adaptation of the E. Annie Proulx novel, The Shipping News, is told in shades of icy gray.

Kevin Spacey is the hapless loser Quoyle, an upstate New York inksetter married to the sluttish Petal (Cate Blanchett, nearly unrecognizable). The saving grace of their unsavory union is a daughter, Bunny, who Petal sells into adoption one day before running off with a new boyfriend. When Petal is discovered dangling and drowned from an upended convertible dragged from the river and Quoyle learns that both of his parents have died at the same time, he recovers Bunny and sets off with his aunt Agnes (Judi Dench) for Newfoundland and their ancestral family home.

What ensues is, to Hallstrm's credit, not a freak show of quirky Newfoundlanders but a delicate portrait of a harsh landscape and the singular types it breeds. Quoyle finds his humanity there with the help of Wavey (Julianne Moore), a local widow, and his co-workers at the local paper, The Gammy Bird. And as shameful family secrets are brought to light, both Quoyle and Agnes are eventually set free.

The first half of the film is awkwardly paced and Blanchett's character is nearly unbearable to watch, but The Shipping News gains interest once we reach Newfoundland where Hallstrm delivers some unforgettable film images: a tall wood-frame house being pulled across a frozen bay by a clan of islanders comes to mind.

Dench and Moore deliver their usual masterful performances, giving us fully wrought characters filled with grace and substance, and sloe-eyed Spacey eventually warms up as Quoyle finds purpose and meaning in his newly discovered life. Nothing ground-breaking here, just a good, solid adaptation of a good, solid novel.


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