Review: ‘The House of the Spirits’

A stellar cast, lavish production values and an epic storyline combine for blue-blooded suds in The House of the Spirits. Bille August's high-toned reduction of Isabel Allende's 1985 worldwide bestseller aims to be a bittersweet historical romance on a grand scale, but the herky-jerky meller mostly bumps from one dramatic highlight to the next.

A stellar cast, lavish production values and an epic storyline combine for blue-blooded suds in The House of the Spirits. Bille August’s high-toned reduction of Isabel Allende’s 1985 worldwide bestseller aims to be a bittersweet historical romance on a grand scale, but the herky-jerky meller mostly bumps from one dramatic highlight to the next.

Pic charts 45 eventful years in the lives of the Trueba family in a South American country very much like Chile. At the outset in 1926, Esteban Trueba (Jeremy Irons) is the struggling young man who promises to become worthy of the beautiful, aristocratic Rosa (Teri Polo).

Estaban becomes the most powerful rancher in the area, and marries 20 years later Rosa’s sister, Clara (Meryl Streep). Living with them at the remote hacienda is Estaban’s spinster sister Ferula (Glenn Close). Jump ahead to 1963, and their daughter, the lovely 17-year-old Blanca (Winona Ryder) is in love with handsome Pedro (Antonio Banderas), the rebellious son of her father’s chief ranch hand.

Just as the characters’ motivations are mostly crude rather than complex, and the view of class politics superficial and romantic rather than acute or intelligent, so is the film’s treatment of the novel’s magical realism on the mundane side. The Danish August’s sensibility is clearly in the epic realist camp rather than with the Latin fabulists.

Performances by the terrific cast are variable. Portuguese locations stand in very serviceably for South American settings.

[Outside Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, pic was released in a 138-min. fine cut by the director himself. Above review is of that version.]

The House of the Spirits

Germany

Production

Neue Constantin. Dir Bille August; Producer Bernd Eichinger; Screenplay Bille August; Camera Jorgen Persson; Editor Janus Billeskov Jansen; Music Hans Zimmer Art Dir Anna Asp

Crew

(Color) Widescreen. Available on VHS, DVD. Extract of a review from 1993. Running time: 145 MIN.

With

Jeremy Irons Meryl Streep Glenn Close Winona Ryder Antonio Banderas Maria Conchita Alonso
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