Bille August’s version of Isabel Allende’s internationally best-selling novel “The House of the Spirits” had no trouble attracting a celebrated cast. So many stars signed on, in fact, that their names barely fit together on the same frame of the opening credits.
By the time this lumbering oaf of a movie is over, however, the wonder is not that Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder and Antonio Banderas (plus Vanessa Redgrave and Armin Mueller-Stahl) were involved, but that their efforts added up to so little. Inert from its opening moments to its too-long-delayed close, this lackluster production is an example of international filmmaking at its least attractive, and a misstep in the careers of pretty much everyone involved.
A multigenerational story covering half a century of personal and political turmoil in a South American country modeled on Allende’s native Chile, “Spirits” has unaccountably been placed in the hands of a Danish director whose reputation was made in Sweden and who decided to deploy his multinational cast in Portugal and Denmark. Is it any wonder that things ended up confused?
In fairness, Allende’s novel probably is too dependent on outlandish incidents of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez magic realism variety to be handled effectively in any form shorter than a miniseries. To squeeze it into a feature, major characters have had to be combined, the barest bones of plot carved out and the narrative in general flattened into an exhausted soap opera.
“Spirits” is narrated by Blanca (Ryder), the daughter of the film’s main characters, fun couple Esteban Trueba (Irons) and his wife, Clara (Streep). It opens in 1923, with the child Clara getting her first glimpse of Esteban, who she knows is going to be her husband even though he is in the process of proposing to her older sister.
Clara is right about Esteban, as she is about many things, because she is gifted with psychic powers that enable her to see into the future as well as move objects across tabletops. An angelic, ethereal woman who every now and again decides to remain mute for years at a time, Clara does not seem to have much power in the present, where lots of situations could use her help.
Most pressingly, as the years go on (and on), is the way husband Esteban, never a very likable individual, turns from a poor landowner to a sour and flinty oligarch, a whip-first-and-ask-questions-later type who oppresses peasants just for the heck of it. He also fathers an understandably grumpy illegitimate son and engages in a blood feud with his sister Ferula (Close), whose chaste passion for Clara he can’t abide.
Coming into a family like this, is it any wonder that Blanca chooses to love Pedro (Banderas), a boy of hearty peasant stock who becomes a revolutionary. This not surprisingly causes all kinds of trouble in the last part of the film, when a coup modeled on the one that drove Salvador Allende (the author’s uncle) from power in Chile disturbs the Truebas’ cloistered lives.
Though the strength of the novel was in its long passages of narrative description, the film has no choice but to lean heavily on dialogue, which even in the book was unremarkable. Sadly, August, screenwriter as well as director, has made things worse: The script for “Spirits” is an unbroken string of cliches lacking even a whiff of originality.
Probably seduced by the book and then unexpectedly mired in this dismal swamp of a production, the film’s performers are uniformly energyless and plodding. Though most of the actors are content to be forgettable, Irons comes off worst due to a choice of accent that can most charitably be called baffling.
Though it’s always risky to try to assess blame in a bankrupt picture like “The House of the Spirits,” the across-the-board failure of usually reliable actors does suggest writer-director August’s responsibility.
Winner of a best foreign film Oscar for “Pelle the Conqueror” and the Palme d’Or for “Best Intentions,” both intensely Scandinavian projects, August has been promoted into an arena where he lacks competence, with this bland epic as the result. When Irons’ character wonders late in the film, “How could I have been so wrong?” he’s asking the question that will be on a lot of minds.
* MPAA rating: R for “strong sexuality and for violence.” Times guidelines: Among other scenes, it features extended torture scenes. ‘The House of the Spirits’
Jeremy Irons: Esteban Trueba
Meryl Streep: Clara Trueba
Glenn Close: Ferula
Winona Ryder: Blanca
Antonio Banderas: Pedro
Vanessa Redgrave: Nivea
Armin Mueller-Stahl: Severo
A Neue Constantin production, released by Miramax Films. Director Bille August. Producer Bernd Eichinger. Executive producers Edwin Leicht, Paula Weinstein, Mark Rosenberg. Screenplay Bille August, based on the novel by Isabel Allende. Cinematographer Jorgen Persson. Editor Janus Billeskov Jansen. Costumes Barbara Baum. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Anna Asp. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.
* Playing in general release.