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The House of the Spirits Review

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The story of a proud Chilean family over the course of 50 years, through spells of happiness, prosperity and war.

★★★★★

With a heavy-hitting cast that also includes Vanessa Redgrave, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Antonio Banderas, this ambitious, lavishly dressed adaptation of Isabel Allende's acclaimed Chilean epic promises far more than director-screenwriter Bille August can deliver. In the main this is an adequate, sprawling historical romantic saga in which the leads are required to age more than 50 years as a proud family rises, falls, collapses and reconciles in three generations, covering the acquisition of wealth, the corruption of power, and the healing of abiding spiritual love through tragedy, revenge and social revolution.

It is matter-of-fact when it should be magical, and at times even laughably clumsy, its potential to grip hindered by stilted dialogue and some eccentric performances. Streep copes best among the top-billed trio as gentle, otherworldly Trueba matriarch Clara, whose psychic gifts — clairvoyance, precognition, telekinesis — enliven the domestic routine of oppression and obsession. Irons, accoutred with an unaccountable accent and a worse hairstyle, has difficulty with his autocratic husband, father and cruel landowner Esteban, while Close as his creepy if justifiably resentful spinster sister Ferula is such a stiff oddity you can't blame him for wanting her out of the way.

The first hour gallops by with commendable speed, with 40 or so years of dreams variously dashed and realised, before the Trueba clan become well and truly mired in jealousy, forbidden love and regrets. Subsequent developments, in which Ryder as rebellious daughter Blanca takes centre stage to be violated, imprisoned and tortured in the right-wing coup of the 70s, are scarcely more persuasive, and look like a different film, and the otherwise pleasing Ryder is not best employed providing the flat voiceover narration that attempts to glue things together.

If this had been a Latin American production, one might have been more generous towards the fumblings of a fairly fetching saga; given the talents involved, the film's hesitations in style and consistent failure to really move must be counted as a major disappointment.

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