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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Acres' Poorly Translates Novel to Film

A Thousand Acres," the 1998 drama now playing at the American House of Cinema, is a cinematic transposition of a prose-fiction work based on a classic play taken from an ancient folk legend. And sad to say, the film does indeed come across like a second- or even thirdhand translation: flat, drained and distorted.

Even so, there are still a few things to recommend it. A strong supporting cast, including Jason Robards, Colin Firth and Keith Carbine, manages to imbue the underwritten characters with more life than Laura Jones' script could decently expect. And the performance by the main lead, Jessica Lange, is often quite moving - or rather, it would be, if had been knit into a solid narrative whole, instead of being thrown away like a colorful scrap, too flashy for the film's dull quilt.

The movie was adapted from novelist Jane Smiley's literary best seller, which was itself both an updating and bold subversion of Shakespeare's "King Lear." Here the legendary British ruler has become an aging Iowa farmer, Larry Cook (Robards), who gives away his patrimony on a whim to two of his daughters, Ginny and Rose (Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer), after banishing the third - his youngest, and favorite (Jennifer Jason Leigh). A train of disasters follows, including death, adultery, treachery, and a father gone mad, driven out into the storm by his angry inheritors.

But in Smiley's version - faithfully followed by director Jocelyn Moorhouse - there's a crucial twist: The angry inheritors - Shakespeare's cruel daughters Regan and Goneril - are actually the heroes of the movie. The father is no tragically divided king, but a spiteful prairie hypocrite, an abusive drunk undeserving of his respected place in society. He is not the victim of his daughters' "hard hearts," but their creator: The women's apparent cruelty is nothing but righteous rage, a "refusal to forgive the unforgivable."

One might quibble with Smiley's approach but the power of her prose is beyond dispute. The book created a vibrant and believable world out of a strong narrative voice. The reader becomes absorbed by the story for its own sake, and forgets the grim literary parody behind it. Unfortunately, Moorhouse cannot duplicate this feat.

Instead, the movie tries to cram in most of the novel's emotional high points without building up to them or earning them in any way. It would be difficult to know exactly what to make of the film's turgid rhythms if you hadn't read the book. Without the resonance of Smiley's prose adding layers of complexity and the dense rhythm of daily life to the somewhat contrived storyline, the parallels and inversions of "King Lear" stand out too starkly. The movie's characters seem like marionettes being put through their paces. It is possible to find suitable cinematic rhythms to translate a book's impact to film, but it doesn't happen here.

The result is a waste of Lange's terrific performance. Few actors can match her naturalness on screen, her transparency to the emotions of her character. As Ginny discovers the truth about her past, Lange is marvelous in displaying the slow, subtle but shattering transformation of her personality. But there is nothing in the film to match this work.

The filmmakers must be given credit for trying to do something beyond standard Hollywood formula (although they still couldn't resist skewing the ending to wring some "Terms of Endearment"-type pathos). In the end we should see their effort as noble, if fatally flawed - like Lear himself, if not quite like Larry Cook.

- Chris Floyd