The press materials for "The House of the Spirits" quote the author of the novel, Isabel Allende, as saying that she had several offers from moviemakers interested in her international best seller. But she turned them down because "everything they said sounded so flamboyant and artificial."
Danish filmmaker Bille August may have sounded more sincere than the others who approached Allende, but his film is everything she was trying to avoid. Flamboyant, artificial this is soap opera so thick with suds that it makes the average TV miniseries seem subtle.
And that's a real shame when you consider the high-powered talent August got to star Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder, Vanessa Redgrave, etc.
It's a genuine treat to see them all here, chewing up the scenery and obviously hoping to be part of a memorable, if not classic epic. But August, who fared better with "The Best Intentions" and "Pelle the Conqueror," lets them down with both his script and his direction. Was it a language problem a South American subject with English-speaking actors?
Whatever, the result is a major disappointment.
The ensemble tale sweeps over some 50 years, beginning in the late '20s as a young girl named Clara who has telepathic and telekinetic powers realizes her true love is Esteban Trueba (Jeremy Irons, who is quite convincing physically, as he goes from youth to middle-age to old-age, but never quite seems to get a handle on his character). He's a poor miner who is betrothed to Clara's older sister Rosa (Teri Polo).
But when Rosa dies, Esteban is distraught and he heads out into the country and blows his savings on a piece of abandoned rural real estate. Over the next 20 years or so, Esteban restores the estate's former glory and becomes a wealthy landowner. He also becomes one nasty fellow, casually raping a peasant woman and exploiting his destitute employees, while climbing in conservative politics.
Esteban has also left his sickly, overweight mother in the care of his spinster sister Ferula (Glenn Close), who cares for her until her death. Meanwhile, Esteban pretends they don't exist.
Eventually, Esteban and Clara (Meryl Streep) come together and marry in Esteban's middle age. Sweet-natured Clara becomes close to Ferula and invites her into their home, much to Esteban's chagrin.
Time passes and Esteban and Clara have a daughter, Blanca (Winona Ryder), who is fiesty and independent, declaring her love for a ranchhand, Pedro (Antonio Banderas). As you can imagine, this does not sit well with Esteban, so he sends her away to school.
When she's older, Blanca returns, still in love with Pedro, and becomes a revolutionary, as the country becomes a hotbed of political upheavel. And it doesn't help her relationship with her father that Esteban is now a highly respected member of the Congress, which is about to fall.
Along the way there are illegitimate children, angry confrontations, riots in the streets . . . .
All of this holds the potential for exciting storytelling, but the film just plods along in an episodic manner, skimming the surface, skipping over details and never builds any emotional steam whatsoever. August's episodic vignettes seem choppy; and while his actors plunge in with their all, the results are uneven.
Of the players, the women fare best, though Ryder's character is woefully underdeveloped. Streep, as a fragile clairvoyant is extremely winning. But it is Close who steals the show. She is nothing short of amazing as a tortured soul whose loneliness has defined her existence. (If she's remembered, look for Close to be a supporting actress Oscar nominee next year.)
"The House of the Spirits" is not rated but would easily get an R for considerable violence, gore, sex, nudity and some profanity.