Astellar 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, along the lines of “Gone With the Wind, “”The Leopard” or “Doctor Zhivago.” While the narrative pull and work of the actors maintain viewer involvement, the herky-jerky meller mostly bumps from one dramatic highlight to the next, with a final effect akin to a stone bouncing along the surface without indicating the depth of the water beneath.
This ambitious European co-production has clicked on the Continent, having grossed nearly $ 20 million in Germany alone since its bow there Oct. 18. Prospects look OK but somewhat less robust for Miramax release stateside, with inherent value of the star names and pre-sold title likely to be offset somewhat by mixed reviews and word of mouth.
Rushed to completion to meet the German opening date, pic runs 145 minutes in version showing in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. In the interim, the director continued to fine-tune his work, and it is his 138-minute version that will open in the U.S. and, reportedly, in all remaining territories.
Fronted by narrated sentiments about how life is fragile and brief, pic proceeds to chart 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 a struggling young man who promises to become worthy of the beautiful, aristocratic Rosa (Teri Polo), whose parents (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vanessa Redgrave) support the match. But by the time Esteban strikes gold, Rosa mysteriously dies, an event foreseen by her little sister Clara.
Clara is so amazingly clairvoyant that the townspeople line up to hear her insights. But Rosa’s death proves so traumatic that Clara turns mute for years, during which time Esteban becomes the most powerful rancher in the area. It is only when he returns 20 years later that Clara (Meryl Streep) again opens her mouth, and the two marry.
But private bliss is not to be theirs, as living with them at the remote hacienda is Esteban’s spinster sister Ferula (Glenn Close), a severe woman who always dresses in black and takes feverish interest in spying on the couple in the sack. As time goes on, they have a daughter, Blanca, while Esteban shuts the door on a peasant woman he raped years before who presents him with a kid she maintains is his son.
Jump ahead to 1963, and 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. Having encrusted into an intolerant tyrant, Esteban goes after Pedro with a whip, then a gun, banishes his sister from the ranch when he catches her innocently in bed with his wife, and tries to force Blanca to marry an effete European aristocrat.
By 1971, the seriously reactionary Esteban is a senior member of the conservative government, which is threatened by a leftist movement in which one of the chief agitators is — you guessed it — the firebrand Pedro.
The film’s protracted final section shows the old order crumbling around the calcified Esteban, as an army coup puts the desperate Blanca and Pedro in great peril from which perhaps only influential old Esteban can rescue them. But the chief inquisitor and torturer of the new regime is none other than — Esteban’s massively resentful bastard son.
In its dramatic, if abrupt, progressions, the story as presented here is of a man who systematically and tragically pushes away his loved ones. Through his proud, rigid attitudes and abusive behavior, Esteban manages to profoundly estrange his wife, sister and daughter, as well as his illegitimate son, his workers and the voters of his country. His attempts to mend his ways at the end of his life make for some reasonably moving final moments, although the soap opera trappings nearly smother any real insights into a highly contradictory man.
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, and Clara’s visions come off more as uncanny coincidences than as part of a larger fabric.
Performances by the terrific cast are variable. Playing a largely loathsome character who salvages some redemption by the end, Irons adopts a vaguely swarthy look and does as well as he can while putting both the other characters and the audience at a distance. Sporting radiant red hair, Streep is a bit mature for her role as a virginal bride at first, but increasingly convinces as a woman possessed by spirits and by love for an impossible man.
Best of all is Close as the repressed but utterly devoted Ferula; her confession to a priest of what she saw in the bedroom is a highlight. Ryder is fetching and fine as the spirited romantic but, like the rest, has no subtext to play with.
Some of the performers, notably Mueller-Stahl, are clearly dubbed into English by other actors, and delivery of the dialogue seems stilted and off at times. Another questionable factor is that the characters don’t seem to age at the same rate.
Portuguese locations stand in very serviceably for South American settings, although Lisbon streets and buildings will be recognizable to anyone who’s been there. Jorgen Persson’s widescreen lensing, Anna Asp’s production design and Barbara Baum’s costumes are all superior, while Hans Zimmer’s score does what it can to smooth over all the narrative abridgments.