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Movie Review

Pfeiffer, Lange Stand Apart From the Rest of the 'Acres' Field

September 19, 1997|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Sisterhood is powerful in "A Thousand Acres," and you'd think that would be enough. Certainly it seems to be in those moments when Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange triumphantly share the screen as embattled siblings in this adaptation of Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the bonds and burdens of kinship and a gift that shatters a family.

Playing sisters has been a longtime aim of these actresses, and they handle the opportunity beautifully. Both strong and vulnerable, they're thoroughly alive individually as well as forming the interlocking halves of a believable, cohesive whole, smoothly complementing each other's work like they've been doing this for years.

But as powerful as sisterhood is, and as memorable as these performances are, it turns out that it's not enough. As directed by Australian Jocelyn Moorhouse ("Proof," "How to Make an American Quilt") from an adaptation by fellow countrywoman Laura Jones, "Acres" has trouble with a group that has rather a history of bedeviling women, namely men.

The film doesn't lack for key male characters (there are at least five), and their actions aren't more objectionable than they should be. The problem is how insubstantial the men come off on screen, how hollow and ephemeral they appear. That's not only as opposed to the brio of Pfeiffer and Lange, which is to be expected, but even as opposed to how they're presented in the novel, where considerably more effort is expended delineating their characters.

This lack doesn't take anything away from those lead performances, but what it does do is deprive them of a more substantial and nuanced showcase in which to be seen. And it keeps the film from accomplishing its aims, accentuating a tendency to be cut and dried, to come off as more earnest and predictable than it perhaps intended to.

"A Thousand Acres" opens with a montage of bucolic farm images, pristine enough for a greeting card. But this is almost purposefully deceptive, for the people of the small town of Pike, Iowa, especially the extended family of Larry Cook (Jason Robards), have darker, more turbulent lives and more troubled pasts than the surface sunshine would indicate.

The film's narrator is Larry Cook's oldest daughter, Ginny (Lange), married to easygoing Ty Smith (Keith Carradine) but still enough of her widowed father's daughter to walk to his house and cook his breakfast every morning. Childless and turning dowdy before her time, Ginny is the family conciliator, the force for stability who has taught herself to believe that things will surely get better.

Rose (Pfeiffer), a breast cancer survivor with an edgy relationship with husband Peter (Kevin Anderson), is a woman who prides herself on her plain speaking, a quality that often lapses into harshness and hostility. Like Ginny and baby sister Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a lawyer who lives in Des Moines and is only sporadically present, Rose has created her personality as a form of defense against her overbearing father.

Larry Cook, crusty and land-proud, is the most respected farmer in Zebulon County and sole owner of the unencumbered 1,000-acre establishment that has been in his family for generations. At a family gathering, he shocks everyone by declaring his intention of making a gift of the place to his three daughters as soon as the contracts can be drawn up.

This act of heedless generosity causes problems from the start. When lawyer Caroline cautiously hesitates about accepting, Larry immediately snaps, "If you don't want it, my girl, you're out," and suddenly a family division has risen up out of nowhere.

If this sounds familiar, it's because author Smiley took the bare bones of her story from Shakespeare's "King Lear" and its tale of a monarch who gives his kingdom to daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. But "A Thousand Acres" has concerns outside of Shakespeare's as well as a modern twist on what that act of generosity leads to.

It's a gift that ends up causing chaos because it triggers actions and memories that in turn expose rifts and crimes, secrets and lies, that have been papered over and half-forgotten. As Larry Cook, perhaps regretful over his actions, becomes even more of a sour tyrant than he was before, his daughters begin to realize just how much they've chafed under his authoritarian rule. And they also increasingly notice the presence of the town's newly returned prodigal son, Jess Clark (Colin Firth, Darcy in the BBC's "Pride and Prejudice"), who seems immediately attracted to Ginny.

Though, according to press reports, director Moorhouse was dissatisfied enough with this cut of "A Thousand Acres" to consider removing her name from the picture, the film succeeds, as the book did, in effectively telling the Lear story from the daughters' point of view, revealing these women as too powerless to protect themselves from being victimized by patriarchal excesses.

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