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In 'A Thousand Acres,'
By Rita Kempley
A Tired Feminist Plot
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 19, 1997
Jane Smiley's novel "A Thousand Acres" has been called " `King Lear' in the cornfields," but the eagerly awaited screen adaptation is but a skeletal litany of miscarriages, mastectomies, sexual abuse, public humiliations and private betrayals. In many ways, it has less in common with Shakespeare's tragedy than with Stephen King's Iowa-set horror story, "Children of the Corn."
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 novel, Smiley paints an "American Gothic" family portrait, but her palette is hardly limited to black and blue: the umber corduroy of the furrowed fields, the sun on the bedroom sheers, even the Quaker gray of the asphalt that bisects the Cook family farm.
Of course, movie adaptations inevitably entail some simplification, but screenwriter Laura Jones, a New Zealander who also wrote three of Jane Campion's movies, all but exorcises the spirit of the novel. While she uses much of Smiley's dialogue verbatim and includes some of her lovely prose in Jessica Lange's narration, this meditation on the erosion of the family farm and the patriarchy that sustained it has been translated into a feminist screed.
Jones and Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse ("How to Make an American Quilt") strip the complexities from the novel's flawed but full-blooded male characters. This turns the tragic figures into straw men and robs the protagonists, Ginny (Lange) and Rose Cook (Michelle Pfeiffer), of their authenticity.
The Cook sisters actually loved, or at least once loved, the men in their lives, even their father, Larry Cook (Jason Robards), whom the middle-aged sisters still call Daddy. Cook's kingdom is a thousand acres of the most fertile land this side of the Missouri River, which he impulsively decides to divide among his three daughters.
Like King Lear, Cook slights his youngest, most sensible daughter, Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), in favor of the other two. And while Cook has a mad scene in a cloudburst, the similarity between the vitriolic farmer and the crazy king more or less stops right there. Cook is a certifiable swine; indeed, he is lower than slime mold -- all of which emerges as the sisters and their husbands (Keith Carradine and Kevin Anderson) attempt to take over the operation.
In the psychological prairie fire that follows, the bovine Ginny and the prickly Rose become romantic rivals upon the return of a childhood friend (Colin Firth) who wants to start an organic farm. When it becomes clear that the sisters are better at canning tomatoes than managing an agribusiness, Caroline, an attorney in Des Moines, sues on behalf of her father. And that is "How to Make an American Quilt." Whoops, wrong chick flick. But then they are all alike aren't they?
The performances are grand but the characters are all dying of a lingering ailment, the menfolk are swine and the mortgages come due. "A Thousand Acres" does, however, feature the first-ever close-up of a mastectomy scar.
A Thousand Acres is rated R for strong sexual language.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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