FILM / Reviews: All soap and skin cream: Adam Mars-Jones on Bille August's The House of the Spirits - a film with its head in the clouds, but up to its ears in suds

Torrid, operatic, sensual, haunting: that's how The House of the Spirits (15) sees itself. Turgid, overlong, silly, hysterical (and that spells TOSH): that's how viewers are more likely to see it. Danish- born director Bille August, who directed the handsome, inert The Best Intentions, from Ingmar Bergman's screenplay about his parents, has moved downmarket as well as south to film Isabel Allende's magical-realist novel.

Adaptations of magical-realist books seem to work rather badly in the cinema, perhaps because, of all artistic mediums, film is the most magical-realist already. What ends up on the screen tends to be a generic family saga with a few supernatural twiddles and a forced sense of wonder. The voice-over spoken by Winona Ryder in The House of the Spirits sets new standards in this vein, her concluding words being 'To me, life itself has become the most important thing.' Wonder what the most important thing used to be, before this philosophical breakthrough.

The ingredients, whether for The House of the Spirits or last year's Like Water for Chocolate, are: a dynasty, a cruel parent, an overlooked sister with special powers, a headstrong girl who falls in love with a revolutionary, curses, ghosts, a cache of family papers. Simmer till mushy.

The founding dynast, Esteban Trueba, is played by Jeremy Irons, giving easily his worst performance. This actor can play dark characters - they're his strong suit - but his speciality is suffering not brutality. In the minutes of screen time after he makes his fortune in the goldmines and builds a spectacular hacienda, Esteban seems to acquire phoney menace in little accretions every 30 seconds: first he grows a thin moustache, then he wears a fierce cowboy hat, suddenly there's a cruel glint in his eye. Cruel 'tache, cruel hat, cruel glint: how long before he realises his surname is an anagram of 'A Brute', and starts horsewhipping people and running for the Senate?: Not long.

Irons's wardrobe seems to be by Ralph Lauren Gaucho (costumes in actuality by Barbra Baum), but his accent is harder to characterise. When he starts wearing the cowboy hat, his accent is given an appropriate Far West spin; at other times, weirdly, he approximates Humphrey Bogart's intonations. Throughout, he gives the phrase 'my daughter' a stylised rendering as 'my dorder', perhaps to signal his belated realisation that he's stranded in the middle of a soap opera. Why should a South American have a North American accent anyway? It says a lot about what happens when a story is considered 'international' that characters of Spanish descent speak in American accents and a Spanish accent is handed on down to the indigenous peoples.

Considerable credit should go to the technicians responsible for the ageing effects on Irons's face. They seemed to have decided that in a few decades time he will resemble Burt Lancaster in old age, and they do a particularly good line in elderly forehead-veins, meandering rummels of blue candlewax beneath the skin.

Meryl Streep plays the woman who tries to tame the brute, a person with special access to the future. Streep doesn't give a bad performance - it's part of the maddening mystery of Meryl that she pitches her acting with such precision, and with such apparent indifference to the film as a whole - but there's a moment in it that is accidentally illuminating about her art in general. Her character Clara (daughter of Nivea, mother of Blanca - yes I know they sound like a skin cream dynasty) is given an emerald bracelet by her new husband on their wedding day.

You're bound to wonder, given her supernatural powers, whether Clara's surprise is genuine, and then you realise that Streep's acting is always reminiscent of a clairvoyant opening presents with a surprise that has taken much practice. When Clara, lying asleep, hands flung back against the pillow, is watched by her obsessed sister-in-law, Streep twitches a finger just as her face is surreptitiously touched, and you find yourself thinking, as so often with Streep, not how real or how right or how true, but how clever, how resourceful.

Streep doesn't share a lot of screentime or by-play with Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Clara's mother - at the stage when Streep takes over the role from a child actress, her character is effectively mute after a family trauma. This is a shame, and anyone who put these two entirely opposite actresses together on more equal terms would be doing the world a favour. Redgrave gives the mother a resigned grace, and at one point a wonderful way of moving, when she realises that her surviving daughter, though odd, may not after all be unmarriageable. The return of hope transforms her gait, and she goes to fetch her at a dainty run.

Clara's special powers don't change her nature. She may be matrilineal in feeling, and has a soft spot for her sister-in-law, played by Glenn Close, but she never defends any women against her husband. Her weapons are silence and patience. In practice, this makes her look a lot like a doormat with ESP. On her wedding night, she briefly levitates a table before going to bed with Esteban for the first time. Unimpressed audiences, already disoriented by the sight of Irons's sock suspenders, may giggle at this evidence that in this case both of the newly-weds can get it up.

As the narrative lurches into recent times, the film abruptly starts claiming a historical relevance. The story is not specifically set in Chile, though Allende's name guarantees that we know where we are. But the effect is of a fairytale suddenly masquerading as a documentary. Bille August's images remain cliched even when the cliches become downbeat - an army boot resting on a desktop in the Ministry of Defence, say, rather than a naked couple embracing by a river as moonlight sifts down on them.

The film treats political upheavals on a par with the earthquake which occurred earlier in the story, when something which you would have thought affected a whole country turned out to be a pretext for Esteban to rush home and find his wife (innocently, if he would only believe it) in bed with his sister. If Isabel Allende is really transmuting her country's painful past into art, why is she up to her ears in suds?

When Winona Ryder's character Blanca, is tortured, the film becomes grim, but it still feels as if a family saga has usurped the public realm, and not as if any political sense is being exercised. Blanca's father, after all, was behind the military coup before it got out of hand, her lover Pedro is a big cheese of the People's Front (how wonderful that he phoned her after years of clandestine politics, the moment his party was voted into power]) and the man who tortures her is in fact her bastard half-brother. Small world, eh?

'The House of the Spirits' opens today; see page 27 for details

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor