08 February 2007

A Thousand Acres - Jocelyn Moorhouse (1997)

It's King Lear set on a farm in Iowa! Based on a Pulitzer novel by Jane Smiley this was produced during that time when Shakespeare was back in the Hollywood vogue. Smiley has said that writing the book was like trudging up a hill. 'Shakespeare both took me by the hand and slapped me across the face.'

This is reflected in the adaptation that is worth the price of admission simply to see how Lear can be turned into a domestic melodrama and how the introduction of subplots and character beats rationalise the harsher notes of the original story and justify some of the motivations that would otherwise look weird in this context.

The biggest deviation is that it concentrates on the Goneril and Regan figures (here named Ginny and Rose) with Lear (Larry) becoming a shadowy figure of hatred and betrayal, with Cordelia (Caroline) as his consort. It's not giving anything away to say that no one actively murders anyone at the end over the land.

Director Jocelyn Moorhouse's previous film was How To Make An American Quilt and the mode here is initially like an expansion of one of the flashbacks from that film, with ravishing cinematography evoking homespun nostalgia. Then there's a sudden unexpected lurch in tone and everything goes Hitchcockian and believe me, you'll be rewinding to try and work out what happened.

It's not a truly great film. The voice over in particular irritates. This is one of those occasions when one of the characters in the story continuously reminds us of what's happening, when, to whom and how we should be feeling about it. This is perhaps a side effect of the adaptation, attempting to bring the original text to the movie -- sometimes filmmakers can take their attachment to a source text a bit too far.

But these reservations are almost extinguished by the powerful performances from such luminaries as Michelle Pfeiffer, Jason Robards and Jessica Lange which elevates what could have been a glorified tv movie. Can anyone remember the last, really great film Pfeiffer was in? Hollywood can be harsh to women of a certain age.

Other small pleasures include watching Colin Firth try out his American accent and actually giving his least Firthy performance ever and spotting a pre-Dawson's Creek Michelle Williams and Elizabeth Moss who played Zoe, the President's daughter in The West Wing in tiny roles as Rose's daughters. Plus, this one's still available on DVD for a change.

© Stuart Ian Burns - Guest reviewer

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