FILM / Some magic, not much realism: The House of the Spirits (15); The Music of Chance (15); The Third Man (PG)

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The Independent Culture
BILLE AUGUST'S epic The House of the Spirits (15) degenerated at its press screening into The House of Mirth. Magical realism on screen is always good for a nervous laugh, and there are moments when the romanticism of Isabel Allende's novel sweeps the adaptation into triteness, turning lushness into slush. The Danish-born August, who steered Pelle the Conqueror the right side of melodrama, seems less sensitive to cliche outside his native tongue. In the midst of a military coup, as the house swarms with soldiers, Winona Ryder pleads with Jeremy Irons: 'Don't you understand, Papa, that these men are dangerous?'

Still, most of the laughter was cruder than the movie. This is a resolutely old-fashioned film: an epic that spans half a century (1926-71) and four generations, swelling with political as well as romantic turbulence into a Chilean Gone With the Wind. Jeremy Irons, as the film's stony centrepiece, Esteban Trueba, turns, in the two-and-a-quarter hours, from wavy-haired youth to wizened old stick, his eyes warily narrowing through the years. Meryl Streep, as his ill-treated wife, gets the worst of the make-up, looking later on as if a bucket of flour has been emptied over her head.

Allende's 1985 novel has been described as a women's book. It's not a contradiction to say that the film is about masculinity: it's a man's world, but everywhere we are confronted with its consequences for women. Esteban Trueba is a textbook depiction of the repressed male, cauterised as a young man by the death of his fiancee into a reactionary withdrawal from the world. Irons speaks with something close to an American drawl, a harsh, guttural catch in the voice which gives it a nervy peremptoriness. Violence is the only release for his feelings. We see him rape a peasant girl, after snatching her on his horse. The act has a desperate compulsion.

As his wife, Clara, Meryl Streep has a sense of uxorial subjugation which is heightened by her supernatural powers. In some droll early scenes her prescience provides racing tips. When she marries Irons, and he starts philandering, she knows everything but stays loyal, though she refuses to address him directly: her servitude cannot even be explained by ignorance. Like Ada in The Piano, she symbolises the silent ordeal of women of her time. Clara's calmness - and merciful lack of an accent - make for Streep's most likeable performance for some time.

It is left to the next generation to convert knowledge into freedom. Winona Ryder, as Streep's daughter, narrates the story, leading it into the modern age by having an affair with Antonio Banderas's Pedro, a revolutionary peasant leader on her father's estate. Their clandestine liaison survives the years and sketchy writing.

Although Esteban becomes a Conservative senator, politics are painted with a broad brush, little more than the graffiti of uprising or despotism. But we see the psychology behind the beliefs: Esteban, who made a fortune gold mining, would, in another time and clime, have been a Thatcherite.

August shoots with elegant formality, a patterned precision which lends itself well to the moments of magic, making them seem on the edge of the ordered, material world - at the margin of credibility. They are unobtrusive enough to be taken as metaphor. So when Glenn Close, withered with self-denial as Streep's spinster sister, returns from the dead to Esteban's house, from which he'd banished her, she may be no more than the embodiment of Clara's intuition.

She raised a laugh at the screening, and sophisticates will chortle at the fairy side of Allende's fable and the gush of her warm fount of wisdom ('You must fight to live, for life is a miracle,' advises Streep, in another spectral scene). But if The House of the Spirits fails to reinvent its traditional form as The Piano did, it still redresses Hollywood's usual sexual politics - and provides an exotic wallow.

You won't see Mandy Patinkin among the nominees at tomorrow's Oscar ceremony. But his performance in Philip Haas's directorial debut, The Music of Chance (15), released in America last year, is a marvel. John Nashe, the sometime fireman he plays, is discreet about his past, but Patinkin conveys all its unspoken drama with a demeanour reminiscent of still waters after a storm. The film opens with him speeding in his red BMW towards New York: with his tanned, bulging forearms, he seems powerfully in control of the wheel and his destiny. But as he switches from classical music to jazz on the car stereo, his life changes. He spots a blood-spattered figure at the kerbside. It's Pozzi (James Spader, in a performance as tackily unconvincing as his black moustache and sideburns), a gambler, heading for Pennsylvania to make a killing at cards from two patsy millionaires (Joel Grey and Charles Durning, a linen-suited Little and Large). Seemingly on to a good thing, Nashe stakes him dollars 10,000.

The inevitable happens, and Nashe and Pozzi lose everything, including the car. They end up incarcerated on the millionaires' estate until they can repay them by building a long stone wall. This is mysteriously linked to a model town, 'The City of the World', lovingly tended by the tycoons in an upstairs room. There's something unsettling about this Utopian toy town and its lottery-winner owners, who claim to be in touch with the souls of numbers. Are they, as they claim, chosen by God? Or just another pair of fascist fantasisers? When Nashe steals into the room and takes two figures from the model, the poker game turns against Pozzi. The film is a brilliantly enigmatic examination of luck, the feeling we have of some harmony or order governing our fate.

The screenplay is a mix of modern literary sources: the metaphysical portentousness of Paul Auster (on whose novel the film is based), Beckett's character names, Mamet's con games, and Pinteresque dialogue. In the manner of such stories nothing much gets resolved: it just gets shaggier, before coming to a lovely sinister halt. Patinkin mesmerises throughout with his eloquent impassivity: he doesn't flinch when the gamble is lost, but the tautness in his face tells us he's ruined - and that he expected no better. He's tender and intelligent, but cowed by life. There are powerful mainstream films now playing in London, but nothing so puzzling or original as this.

Graham Greene and Orson Welles are two of my favourite 20th-century artists. Why then is The Third Man (PG) - written by Greene, stolen by Welles - about as attractive to me as diluted penicillin? It's partly that neither is doing what he is best at. Welles was a great director, and bravura actor; Greene a great novelist, who moonlighted at screenwriting. It's like watching Viv Richards bowl his off-spin at Dennis Lillee.

More importantly, the film is treasured for all that's worst about British film-making. With its larky tone and half-hearted style (Carol Reed's famous Dutch camera tilts are little more than window-dressing), it's the sort of film you'd expect a nation like ours, that doesn't take film seriously, to revere.

Greene, who as a film critic attacked Hitchcock's 'inadequate sense of reality' and 'series of small, 'amusing' melodramatic situations', produced a screenplay of ersatz Hitchcock: the boy with the ball interrupting the investigation, the Ferris-wheel conversation, the chase in the sewers. There's always an undercutting humour so we don't take this tale of malformed children (a callously glib McGuffin) too seriously: as in the scene in which western-writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), the naive, philistine vehicle for Greene's anti-Americanism, gets dragooned into talking to a British Council literary meeting, a direct crib from The Thirty-Nine Steps. Hitchcock would have sorted out the plotting too, which gets bogged down in Martins' wild-goose chase.

But then, an hour in, Orson Welles's Harry Lime shows up - the famous cat curled around a polished shoe, the opening of a shutter at a window, and the face lit up: shy, apologetic, twinkling - and you can forgive anything (even Trevor Howard's absurd duffel coat). We're seduced out of caring for Greene's weary plot. Welles saves the film and destroys it.

Cinema details: Review, page 90.