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‘The House of the Spirits’ (R)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 01, 1994

Look again, closer. There -- that swarthy, mucho macho hombre on horseback. It's not Clint Eastwood or even Kevin Costner. It's Jeremy Irons! Slathered in bronzer and hair gel (with an even thicker accent), the pale-faced, patrician ultra-WASP is almost unrecognizable as the oppressive patron of a Chilean family. It's the first of many unintentionally rich moments in the star-studded, star-crossed "The House of the Spirits."

A Cliff Notes adaptation of a tony novel, "The House of the Spirits" riffles through Isabel Allende's sprawling 433-page saga, pausing briefly to note the high points. And there are a lot of them -- funerals, weddings, births, more funerals, ghosts, magical powers, train explosions, armed coups, rape, torture, revenge, forgiveness and more funerals.

Stretching from the 1920s to the '70s, the story has it all and more -- including considerable star power. The multinational cast includes Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, Vanessa Redgrave and Antonio Banderas. But director Bille August ("Pelle the Conqueror") squanders it all. His dispirited "House" is stiff and superficial, an earnest, ambitious failure.

Sort of a Latin "Les Miz," Allende's blood-soaked story of the turbulent Trueba family is so convoluted, it's nearly impossible to condense. But a deep breath, and here goes: Too poor to marry the young woman he fancies, Esteban Trueba (Irons) goes to work in the mines. He strikes gold after two years, and returns, but too late -- his intended has sipped a poisoned brandy at a reception, and she's gone.

Stone-faced and stone-hearted, Esteban buys a big hacienda in the hills, bosses the poor peasants around and returns years later a self-made man. He marries his late fiancee's kid sister, Clara (Streep), who has has psychic powers of telekinesis and clairvoyance -- sort of a Latin "Bewitched." She invites his intense spinster sister Ferula (Close) to live with them. Then daughter Blanca (Ryder) is born, and as a rebellious teen, takes up with a revolutionary peasant Pedro (Banderas), which enrages her autocratic oppressor and brutal daddy.

After a military coup, the movie drastically changes tone, and becomes a grim depiction of political brutality. Allende's point -- that political verities are transitory, it's human bonds that count -- gets cruelly short shrift. Where her novel paints a violently changing world from the women's point of view, the film doesn't give us a close enough identification with any of these beautifully costumed characters, male or female.

Doing a gruff, jowly Brando imitation -- literally chewing his lines -- Irons lets his makeup act for him. He really makes you hate mean old Esteban, but never turns the tide when the character redeems himself. Irons is seen as a young man when he meets the child Clara, who will one day become his bride. Years later, he looks about the same, but when he lifts the veil he finds a fully-grown and unmistakably 40-something Streep! She comes off as merely simpering when she's striving for ethereal and carefree, but fares much better as the older, more careworn Clara. Best of all is Close as Ferula, steely, beady-eyed and beaky, tormented by an unconsummated erotic tenderness toward her brother's wife. As Blanca, Winona Ryder looks lovely, recalling a young Natalie Wood, but her affectless narration starts the movie on a gauche note. Banderas doesn't have much to do but glower handsomely as her lover Pedro, but he does it well.

Cinematographer Jorgen Persson gives "The House of the Spirits" plenty of picturesque moments -- scenes of grand estates and restaurants, dancers in white and cream linen whirling in a town square, a locomotive chugging across a prairie -- but August's stolid, straightforward direction isn't suited to Allende's magical-realist voice, and aside from a few levitation tricks, he skimps on the story's mystical/feminist subtext. August also wrote the screenplay, and it smells of hasty translation. "House" is performed in English, but the acting is so unaccountably, embarrassingly stilted, it feels dubbed -- you keep looking for subtitles.

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