Dir Lasse Hallstrom. US 2001. 111mins.

What has happened to the singular vision of Lasse Hallstrom, so clearly evident in his Swedish (My Life As A Dog) and first American film (What's Eating Gilbert Grape')' The Shipping News, his third consecutive film for Miramax, propagates the same compassionate humanism that defined his previous two, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat (both Oscar-nominated), but it also suffers from some of their weaknesses: the film is soft, bland and somewhat shapeless. Based on E Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the tale centres on a third-rate newspaperman (played by a vastly miscast Kevin Spacey), who embarks on a journey of self-discovery when he returns to his ancestors' home on the coast of Newfoundland. What elevates the film above the routine is its visual look and female cast: Cate Blanchett as Spacey's first wife, Julianne Moore as the new woman in his life and especially the formidable Judi Dench as his feisty aunt. So far, Miramax has been unable to position The Shipping News as a strong Oscar contender and major player in the US, either artistically, due to mixed reviews, or commercially, due to lukewarm word-of-mouth and middling box-office: since it opened one week ago the film has taken an estimated $2.8m from 186 sites.

Although based on vastly different sources materials, Hallstrom's three Miramax features basically represent the same kind of film - and the same kind of film-making. All three are set in remote, exotic places; all three are large ensemble pieces in their effort to portray an eccentric community; and all three are underlined by a "sensitive" and compassionate humanism in their focus on moral awakening, caused by the characters coming to terms with a painful past. In The Cider House Rules, the most interesting and accomplished of the trilogy, there was an incestuous father-daughter rape; in Chocolat, a French woman was fighting a provincial, superstitious village in the 1950s; and in the contemporary The Shipping News, one of the big "secrets" revealed in the last reel is a deviant sibling relationship.

One cannot take seriously author Proulx's endorsement of the film and her claims that "the acting, intelligent attention to detail and the stark and powerful Newfoundland landscape make a brilliant and unusual film that I didn't dream could be made." In fact, in interviews, director Hallstrom has acknowledged the "almost provokingly undramatic" nature of the material, poorly adapted to the screen by Chocolat screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs.

As she demonstrated in her 1988 literary debut, Heart Songs And Other Stories, and her 1992 novel, Postcards, Proulx is an idiosyncratic prose stylist with a special gift for offbeat tales about flinty souls in need of redemption. Like those novels, The Shipping News tells a quirky, episodic story, which hangs together beautifully due to its memorable individual characters. The one quality Hallstrom's film shares with its literary source is its visually deft sketch of Newfoundland as a remote, stark community. The place's brutal wintry climate is laced with astounding sights of severe beauty, lyrically evoked by cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (who also shot Cider House Rules) as if he was using a painter's brush.

Having just read Proulx's lyrical novel, I respectfully disagree with her assessment, although the film is not without merits once its major casting flaw is overcome. Who wants to see Kevin Spacey, one of America's wittiest and most brilliant actors, playing a nebbish, a hapless, lonely upstate New Yorker who loses everything and has to rebuild his life from scratch'

Although a bit older, Spacey plays Proulx's 36-year-old protagonist, a rambling, lumpish, unemployed journalist whose married life is as ghastly as it is funny. In a shocking opening that belongs more to a David Lynch picture than one by Hallstrom, Quoyle's nymphomaniac wife, Petal (Blanchett in a fiery, extremely brief turn), runs off with her latest lover. She later dies in a fiery car crash, although not before selling her daughter for $7,000 to finance her adventure. Then Quoyle's terminally ill parents announce their joint suicide in a message on his answering machine.

Almost demented with grief, Quoyle doesn't know where to turn until his Aunt Agnis (Dench) arrives on the scene and suggests that they all move together to Killick-Claw, a small fishing outpost on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula and rebuild the old family homestead which was abandoned decades ago. Inexplicably, screenwriter Jacobs has decided that Quoyle should have one instead of two daughters (as in the book)

Reluctantly consenting to the scheme, Quoyle lucks into a job at The Gammy Bird, a spunky newspaper run by tough publisher Buggit (Glenn) and contentious editor Card (Postlethwaite), which specialises in vitriolic gossip, misprints ("typos give humour to the paper") and wire stories about "the demented style of life in the States". Quoyle's editor, who has a weird knack for assigning reporters to beats that force them to confront their inner fears and anxieties, asks Quoyle to cover car crashes and the shipping news.

Unfortunately, nothing goes according to plan: the homestead turns out to be a lonely, shabby, uninhabitable place, deserted by the family 50 years ago, with transport a problem. With few passable roads, Quoyle has to overcome his hydrophobia and learn to handle a boat: early on, it is established that Quoyle's father used to toss his petrified boy into brooks and lakes.

Soon it becomes clear that it is not just the weather that's full of surprises. Agnis has revelations to make about herself and Quoyle family history. And Killick-Claw proves to have an unexpectedly cosmopolitan populace, including a wandering British journalist who everyone likes so much that they wreck his boat when he threatens to move on.

The narrative settles into a more conventional tone as soon as Quoyle meets Wavey (Moore), a single mother with a brain-damaged child who has to confront her own personal demons. At first their courtship is awkward, but through the bonding of their children, they become more intimate. As Quoyle's life unfolds in Newfoundland, his - and the other residents' - past melds with the present, leading to each character undergoing some significant transformation.

Proulx flaunts her stylistic oddities with invigorating effect. Her prose is rife with outrageous character names (such as Diddy Shovel and Biscuit Paragon) most of which have been retained in the film. Sporadically, Hallstrom is able to convey the book's bracing portrait of a community which is rich in foolish quirks and generous warmth. But what's missing most from the picture is the idiosyncratic humour and language. Proulx coins her own vocabulary, describing a face as looking "like cottage cheese clawed with a fork". In the book, which is essentially a black comedy about an endearing loser, it is Quoyle who is trying to learn "if love came in other colours than the basic black of none and the red heat of obsession" who gives it its poignant pull.

The film, however, lacks a dramatic or emotional centre because of Spacey's disappointing performance: in his interpretation, Quoyle seems too distant, confused and unappealing. In fact, the characteristics with which Quoyle is identified with - inhibition, silent rage, non-confrontation - are in diametric opposition to those that have made Spacey a distinctive actor-star.