Film Studies: Knight. Oscar-winner. But is Ben a star?

The favourites for the Best Actor Oscar this year are Sean Penn (Mystic River) and Bill Murray (Lost in Translation). But the most remarkable feat of impersonation among the nominees is unquestionably Ben Kingsley's performance as Behrani in House of Sand and Fog.

Mr Behrani was a ranking police officer under the Shah in Iran. But from that elite life, he has escaped with his family to a state of marginal survival in America. He works two jobs: on a crew tidying the highways, and as a night-time sales clerk in a convenience store. But he is an ingenious, watchful man and he works out a way to do the American thing. He will buy a forfeited house at a knockdown price, improve it and make a profit. But this house is the property of a forlorn hippy woman (Jennifer Connelly) who has missed tax payments and been dispossessed. It is her resolve to fight back that ensures the tragedy of the film.

Taken from a novel by Andre Dubus III, the film tells an unusual story based on the way money-matters determine so many destinies. (In a business so monopolised by money, it's striking that so few films consider finances this closely and see how it shapes our lives.) But another reason for the film's success is the way it presents a conflict between American and Iranian attitudes in ordinary circumstances - as opposed to the battlefield, or nation-building. Nothing is more striking in Kingley's performance than his sense of Behrani's furious honour. The matter is left open in the film as to whether Behrani was a tyrant or even a torturer in Iran. But he believes in order; he is convinced that he is in the right; and he has learnt to live quietly and patiently in a society that he actually despises.

Well, of course, you may say, isn't it taken for granted that Kingsley is a great actor? Wasn't he knighted for this a few years ago? Didn't he win the acting Oscar for his Gandhi in 1982? All of this is so, yet I think it's fair to say that Kingsley is not easily cast by the picture business. Nor has he attained the level of stardom that reckons a picture can be built around him. To take one recent example: Anthony Hopkins was cast in The Human Stain, as a black man who has lived 40 years as if he were white. And Hopkins was roundly criticised for not being black.

The charge was ludicrous - for acting is becoming something that you are not by nature. But I can concede that Kingsley might have been more sensible casting, if only because he is of mixed race. I'm sure he would have been good in the film, and he would have been spared all those woeful lamentations about being white bread (something Olivier, say, was never made to endure when he played Othello).

But the facts about Kingsley - his being half Indian and half English - do affect his employment. It's something the movie business never really worked out with Anthony Quinn: the way in which he could be all manner of exotics (Greek, Red Indian, Eskimo, Arab, Spanish - Quinn was the United Nations), without ever establishing a plain identity. So Kingsley was magnificent as Itzhak Stern, the keeper of Schindler's list. Yet on television in the mini-series, Joseph, he played Potiphar, the steward to Pharaoh - and then, in the sequel, played Moses! Over the years, he has played Lenin and Shostakovich, the actor Edmund Kean, the master gangster Meyer Lansky and Silas Marner. In Without a Clue, he even played Dr Watson, though a Watson who was the real brains of the Baker Street firm.

I'm not complaining about this variety. In most cases, Kingsley commands attention, even if he's working with poor material - even if, as sometimes happens, he's doing narration. I have not even mentioned his gorgeous, ranting Don Logan in Sexy Beast, embedded in south London and one of his greatest turns. It was enough to persuade film-makers to construct entire projects around Kingsley.

But if you study his credits, you find something else - an unease with the actor, an uncertainty about his ethnic grounding that still seems unaware of how resourcefully he establishes his own authenticity.

As I look at his projects pending - Thunderbirds, Valiant, A Sound of Thunder - I feel the same problem, even if I can hardly wait to see his Hamet Karamanli in Ridley Scott's Tripoli, or his Dr Herman Tarnower in Mrs Harris, the society doctor murdered by his discarded lover Jean Harris (who will be played by Annette Bening, another player who has missed the parts she deserves).

Meanwhile, take a look at House of Sand and Fog and find yourself imaging the rest of Behrani's difficult life - or Kingsley's.

'House of Sand and Fog' (15) is released on 27 February