Chilean novelist Isabel Allende's epic The House of the Spirits is set in a fictitious South American country. About the most charitable term one can apply to the South American setting of the film version, which was directed by a Dane and shot in Denmark and Portugal, is that it's probably not intended as much more than a convention. From there, it gets harder to be charitable, as the rest of the film does seem intended to be taken seriously.
The main roles are played by such big names as Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, Antonio Banderas and Maria Conchita Alonso, but the true star is--get this--Jeremy Irons as Esteban, the powerful, macho patriarch of a wealthy estate. Irons needed a change from the creepy, obsessive-sex parts, sure, but this is like seeing Romeo played by Charles Bronson or Gregory Peck as the Cowardly Lion--it's just not in Irons' range. The voice he attempts to affect here, a sort of John Hustonish virile growl, is almost touching in its inadequacy.
Not that the other performers are much more at ease. Streep plays Esteban's wife, a saintly psychic and telekinetic whom he marries years after the death of her older sister, Esteban's first love. Ryder plays their beautiful daughter, who loves Esteban's political enemy, a handsome revolutionary peasant (Banderas), and has a child with him. The novel, which I haven't read, may well be a fine, sprawling yarn, the South American equivalent of Gone With the Wind for this country or The Thorn Birds for Australia. Reportedly, Allende (a niece of Salvador Allende) wanted no other director to adapt her book than the one who did, Bille August of Pelle the Conqueror and of the Ingmar Bergman-scripted The Best Intentions. Allende's plot employs elements, like ghosts and prophecies, characteristic of that most beloved of Latin American fictional modes, the magical realism of Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Manuel Puig and, most recently and modestly, Laura Esquivel of Like Water for Chocolate.
Dour Scandinavian that he is, August shows little affinity for these supernatural manifestations. Esteban's wife is no lightweight as a psychic. Her prophecies are never wrong, and her paranormal abilities are such that her honeymoon bliss levitates a table. Yet there's no quality of magical wonder to the way in which these occurrences are presented, nor are they delightful in the way that movie miracles can be when they're presented offhandedly.
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His temperament being what it is, August might have done better to discard the supernatural stuff. But even without this side to the material, the movie of The House of the Spirits is little more than a solemn soap opera of the standard, TV-miniseries, family-saga sort.
August's attempt to create a political backdrop for the story is as unconvincing as the casting and the setting. It's almost childlike in its naivet and vagueness. And most of the actors come across as waxworks. Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vanessa Redgrave are little more than bit players. Alonso, as the standard-issue whore with the heart of gold, and Sarita Choudhury, as a peasant woman, though both are welcome, appear for not much longer than it takes to justify baring their breasts.
Vincent Gallo is quite effective as Esteban's baleful, Mordredlike bastard son--the result of Esteban's rape of the peasant woman--but actingwise, the big exception to the general feebleness is Glenn Close. Her first few years in movies were, for me, dull more often than they were interesting (her excellence in Dangerous Liaisons notwithstanding), but Close has been on a roll lately. She is marvelous in her unpromising role in The Paper--maybe the best reason to see the film--and in The House of the Spirits, she's wonderfully commanding in the regrettably small part of Esteban's wronged, cursing, spinster sister.
Close keys into the crackling spirit of melodrama in a way that Streep, who's mannered and uninteresting here, does not. Indeed, Close comes closer than anyone else connected with the film--including the director--to turning The House of the Spirits into a good time.