Rows of Corn

A Thousand Acres
area theaters, starts Friday

JESSICA LANGE AND Michelle Pfeiffer may go down a tad easier as Iowa farmwives than Meryl Streep, but it's still disconcerting to see those famous faces above frumpy aprons and platters of swiss steak. At the beginning of A Thousand Acres, Lange and Pfeiffer clank around this domestic scene like giants on the earth, their rural utterances arch and practiced. Director Jocelyn Moorhouse shoots them close and screens them large, like the celebrities they are. She wants you to feel their royalty. Because in this story, based on novelist Jane Smiley's reconstruction of King Lear, they're princesses in a kingdom of corn and beans.

Of course, as soon as the film locates Ginny (Lange), Rose (Pfeiffer), and their younger sister Caroline (a subdued Jennifer Jason Leigh) as chosen heirs in the court of their autocratic "Daddy" (Jason Robards), the actresses do what they're paid to do and make you believe in those aprons and farm-bound frustrations. In fact, so excellent are Lange and Pfeiffer that they overwhelm the movie and make mincemeat of their male co-stars. The only exception is Robards, whose formidable, mad character ensures a continually noxious presence.

Otherwise, as Ginny's husband Ty, Keith Carradine so disappears into earnest, unquestioning Midwestern farmerhood that he's almost colorless. Kevin Anderson plays Rose's sullen, good-time-lovin' husband Pete with such little depth that you don't understand what drew Rose to him. Worst of all, Colin Firth (who crafted a prodigious Darcy in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice) looks confused and fuzzy in American jeans as long-lost neighbor Jess Clark; he exudes little of the mystery or edge that would cause first Ginny and then Rose to fall for him.

Partly, we have the Hollywood salary and status games to blame: What male actor of Pfeiffer and Lange's caliber would accept such a small part in their movie? As far as Jess goes, the script by Laura Jones (who also adapted The Portrait of a Lady) has already leached away much of his substance, turning him into a male version of the movies' usual younger woman cipher/catalyst. In a way, that's cool--A Thousand Acres vows to tell (film) history from a female perspective. But by cutting out some of Smiley's complexity, Jones and Moorhouse have unbalanced her story. They've made an emotionally intense, difficult, and moving "women's picture" when they might've shot an intense and difficult picture of women and men moving through history.

Not that the former accomplishment is without merit: Obviously, few movies put women through a hero's journey to consciousness. And with its hard ending, Moorhouse's film is actually less disingenuous about the pain of that consciousness than Jane Campion's beautiful The Piano. As in Lear, A Thousand Acres focuses on a family's struggles as the patriarch reluctantly hands off his possessions to the next generation. Except that this radical retelling reveals not the greed of the eldest daughters, but the sickness of a mindset that believes it can "own" a kingdom--land, buildings, labor, children--and make use of it as the "owner" sees fit.

In A Thousand Acres, Daddy has written his name on his daughters' skin, and not simply in bruises; his notion of ownership has poisoned them. Rose has honed her anger until she is only blade; she lives to thwart him. (So great to watch Pfeiffer actually sweat a bit.) Peacemaker Ginny (Lange, achingly receptive and girlish) has survived by silencing her will. Caroline, her independence fostered by her sisters, has turned out the most like Daddy: sharp, manipulative, and, as a lawyer, concerned with the maintenance of "just" ownership. But Daddy was victimized as well, at his daddy's knee; and Robards makes us see how tenuous he becomes without his usual possessions. "I have nothing," he wheezes--by which he means, "I am nothing."

For all their growing rebellion, Rose and Ginny are still their father's daughters, and they eventually fight over ownership of Jess. Yet Jones's script backs off again, lessening Ginny's bitter revenge and leaving the women merely history's victims and not its actors as well. This trick is a women's-picture staple (from Garbo movies to Moorhouse's How to Make an American Quilt, not to mention the Princess Di coverage); and it culminates here in a hugely sad, strangely smug, crashingly cathartic finale (yes, I cried). End of story/problem/accountability.

Moorhouse and Jones, who for the most part have employed Smiley's prose wisely and well, finish up by pulling a bright, groundless hope out of the hat--and send us (women) out of the theater feeling righteous. The book's original aim is much less benign: Having revealed both men and women as complicit in history's horror, Smiley steps back and demands, So what are you gonna do about it? Whether we're princesses or kings, it's our combined answer that will prove herstory's real tragedy--or hope.

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