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)

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