House of Sand and Fog

Release date: Dec. 26
Prior Oscar winners: Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”), Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind”), James Horner (score, “Titanic”)

A tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude, “The House of Sand and Fog” is DreamWorks’ late-season entry into the Oscar stakes.

Hearkening back to the studio’s 1999 best pic winner “American Beauty,” helmed by theater recruit Sam Mendes, DreamWorks has scored another coup by landing a first-time director, Vadim Perelman, who orchestrates like a seasoned maestro.

A film with no clear-cut villains or heroes, “House” deals with several ambitious themes: bureaucratic victimization, clinical depression, familial bonds, marital fidelity, xenophobia, violence that begets violence, and, finally, a sense of profound humanity. These universal themes are handled with an almost seamless mix of assured acting, dramatic tone, absorbing visuals and lush score.

Cast is top-notch, including Oscar winners Ben Kingsley as Massoud Amir Behrani, an Iranian immigrant who was a colonel under the shah, and Jennifer Connelly as Kathy Nicolo, a recovering alcoholic whose house is mistakenly seized for back taxes. In addition, Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo makes an astonishing English-language debut as Behrani’s proud wife, Nadi.

A native of Kiev in the Ukraine, Perelman — who adapted Andre Dubus’ bestselling novel — established himself in the big-ticket commercial and musicvid world, and his dexterous hand with composition, lighting and mood is sustained throughout the film’s two-plus hours.

Oscar-winning composer James Horner sustains a tone of palpable dread, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, the five-time Oscar-nominated lenser and frequent collaborator of the Coen brothers, delivers a muted palette of gleaming surfaces and ominous shadows.

Pic is benefitting from an aggressive push by DreamWorks, which is four-walling the Music Hall in Beverly Hills for Acad members beginning Nov. 14.

Potent mix of Oscar stalwarts and the arrival of strong new talent in Perelman could prove the right combo come noms time. And pic’s ability to deliver an emotional knockout with no easy resolutions is just the kind of serious drama to which the Acad responds.

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