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Case Number 22664

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The House Of The Spirits

Echo Bridge Home Entertainment // 1993 // 133 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // November 3rd, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Jim Thomas prefers The House of the Pancakes where you can get a good omelet.

The Charge

Opening Statement

A 1993 German-Danish-Portuguese production, set in Chilé, starring a predominantly Caucasian cast. We're already in pretty surreal territory, so when the little girl uses telekinesis to move a wine decanter across a coffee table, you're hardly phased at all. Jeremy Irons' accent, however, may send you screaming to the hills.

Facts of the Case

The House of the Spirits defies easy summation. The movie focuses on Esteban Trueba (Jeremy Irons, Brideshead Revisited), a young, ambitious man. He's engaged to Rosa (Teri Polo, Meet the Parents), the daughter of a liberal politician; so intent is Esteban on making a good life for his wife that he goes to work in a gold mine to make a stake. Tragedy strikes when Rosa accidentally drinks poisoned wine meant for her father. Embittered, Esteban leaves to establish the plantation of Tres Maria; he builds it into a thriving concern using the labor of those living on the land. Just in case you don't get that Esteban is exploiting the workers, the point is driven home when he rapes one of them.

Following the death of his mother, Esteban decides to propose to Rosa's younger sister Clara (Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia), a frail, sickly thing with one foot in another world—her psychic gifts have been a blessing and a curse. Esteban's sister Ferula (Glenn Close, Reversal of Fortune) moves in with Esteban and Clara at Tres Maria, where relationships rise and fall in the shadow of growing political strife.

The Evidence

Meryl Streep.
Glenn Close.
Jeremy Irons.
Winona Ryder.
Antonio Banderas.

You only have to look at the cast to know that The House of the Spirits was supposed to have been a blockbuster of a film. Then you see names like Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vanessa Redgrave in supporting roles. All you can ask yourself is "What the hell happened?"

Actually, it's pretty obvious what happened. Isabel Allende's novel is a long, sprawling affair spanning some fifty years and four generations, has magical elements woven throughout, and ultimately combines familial upheaval with political revolution. Adapting a work so dense and complex is no mean feat, particularly in a roughly two-hour movie. So characters and plot elements get eliminated. That in and of itself isn't a problem (there's a reason that only one filmed version of Hamlet includes the entire text), but what's left is still a convoluted plot, and characterization too often takes a backseat to keeping things moving. Central to the problem is the concept underlying the entire film: Clara's paranormal gifts. Introduced in a wonderfully understated way in an early scene, what begins as a controlling metaphor ultimately becomes more of a plot convenience than anything else, primarily because we never see them as a part of Clara's everyday life. The narration could have compensated somewhat, but, particularly early on, Wynona Ryder is a bit too monotone to generate the needed send of wonder.

Meryl Streep's usual strong performance mitigates the problem to an extent, but not enough. Glenn Close has a thankless turn as Esteban's repressed sister; she does well, breathing life into a borderline stereotype, but it appears that the part was trimmed down to the point that her primary function is to demonstrate that Esteban is a complete jerk—a fact that really needed little additional corroboration. Winona Ryder reminds us why she was thought to be the next great actress during the 1990s.

And then there's Jeremy Irons. The court just doesn't quite know what to make of this performance. Part of the problem is that we never understand why he does things. When we first see him, he is dedicated and hardworking, but without any glimpse into his inner workings, we're at a loss for explaining his later behavior. Another problem is the question of ethnicity. Irons adopts a sort of generic bloviating patrician accent, one that is markedly at odds with the Hispanic accents of the bulk of the supporting cast. It doesn't help that all you have to do is add just a slight southern drawl and you just about have a spot-on Foghorn Leghorn impression. Perhaps the goal is to universalize the drama, but in doing so, the historical overtones are lost. Perhaps that's really the problem here—so much of the backstories and historical underpinnings are lost that the political struggle becomes generic; we never see anything that Irons does with respect to the government, so it's hard to understand the conflict beyond "conservative vs. liberal," which simply isn't conducive to any kind of social commentary. That, coupled with the fact that Esteban is such an utterly unlikable character, results in a movie that is difficult to process. By the time The House of the Spirits ends, you're left wondering exactly what the point of it all was.

Technically, the disc is middling. Video is a little soft, with noticeable grain. Colors are in good shape but there is some flaring, particularly with flames. The stereo track is adequate, nothing more. There are no extras, but in keeping with this court's traditions, five points are awarded for the use of chapter stops.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

There is a wonderfully moving meditation on the need for forgiveness lurking just under the surface of The House of the Spirits. It never fully appears, but you see just enough of an outline to appreciate what could have been, had the characters been given more of an opportunity to grow beyond the simple dictates of plot.

Closing Statement

The House of the Spirits is not really a bad movie; the characters and plot are interesting enough to keep our attention. However, with a cast this talented, "interesting enough" is insufficient.

The Verdict

The defendant is guilty of deleting so much of the story that its spirit was lost along the way.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 80
Audio: 85
Extras: 0
Acting: 88
Story: 78
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Performance

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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