on 17 January 2014
For her second major US film, Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse, wife and producer of 'Muriel's Wedding's P.J Hogan, took Jane Smiley's same-titled Pulitzer winning novel, and with New Zealander screen writer Laura Jones, set this modern-day King Lear among the golden cornfields and hazy backdrops of a Midwestern farming community, where an old past-it farmer decides on a whim to divide his land equally between his three daughters. Despite an astoundingly misguided critical savaging on its released (despite it being one of the best films of 1997-the very opposite of what old recently deceased movie critic Roger Ebert), this searing drama is the pick of the crops when it comes to that rare thing in Hollywood-a leading movie where the three main stars are all woman, and three of the finest actresses of their own specific generation, no less, in Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jennifer Jason Leigh all emerging as physically plausible siblings, lending their considerable weight and class to a worthy piece that keeps its corn specifically in the fields where it should be, and while a generally soft-focused film to start with, it gets progressively darker as long suppressed demons and antagonisms begin to billow and finally explode but do in so the correct context of a ebbing river, and not the Paul Thomas Anderson approach of mass hysteria, unending screaming and hugely irritating repetition.
Jason Robards is monstrous as the utterly vile and bellicose father who immediately regrets his decision, and whose death couldn't come quick enough for this viewer, and when he's actually yelling obscenities at his daughters despite keeping them constantly worried by disappearing often on his own and ignoring them, I actually found myself matching his volume as I yelled in their defence when I first saw this a good many years ago, and haven't such a memorably vocal interaction since. Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer are absolutely sensational as the dissimilar sisters drawn together in the land dispute with this maddening tyrant, both equating brilliance in their own way; Jessica's keenness to avoid harsh realities alongside her natural gentility is hugely affecting, but it's Michelle who provides the fire, emitting cold fury and delivering the film's main horrific family revelation with staunch toughness, yet remains a loving mother to her two daughters, both of which we know well now (Michelle Williams and 'Mad Men's' Elisabeth Moss). Above all, considering the fact this is no light mid-afternoon TV dinner fix, I'm stunned that the notoriously picky Pfeiffer would pick such a tormented role, where the raping of the fields took on new meaning, not least as she once said: "When I pick roles, I look for something that doesn't offend me", a self-imposed straitjacket if ever there was one, but considering everyone knows her name, and her star power endures, she's a gold-star example that less is more, something far weaker performers like Gywneth Paltrow wouldn't be aware of, plus her family itself has always come first. But I'm so glad she took this.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is much less in evidence, but she and we accept that, and she doesn't quite up the niceness stakes, but generally the villains are all men, whether abusive, chauvinistic and cold partners, or rootless uncommitted players (Colin Firth in his most criminally forgotten role-yes even HE was in this) and family friends who impose their own judgement on hearing only half the story, this film makes you feel utterly contemptible for the way a man's world treated its own womenfolk and makes you ashamed for having a pair, but any man smart enough to be searching out something a bit deeper than than usual Jason Statham/Nicolas Cage or video game shoot-em up, it's a shame you'll only feel in natural empathy with the unfairly put upon.
Far darker and more straightforward than Moorhouse's previous US film, the almost equally worthy segment-heavy 'How To Make An American Quilt', she once again assembles a cast of thunderously weighty character actors, yet with no earlier leftovers, achieving more high points for an intriguingly downbeat style that belies the horrors in the family, with photography that mockingly frames its devastating array in warm gold and brown hues that almost mask the blood, guts and sins just under the surface soil, where stunted growth struggles with the fight for freedom.
This long awaited disc (it only ever had a brief VHS release in 2000) contains no extras sadly, but is a tasty price, and should be essential viewing for any lovers of top quality big-screen drama that doesn't shirk from the nastiness those closest to us can be capable of, and of the fight to seal it off and function beyond it. Incredibly and inexplicably, Mrs Pfeiffer wasn't even nominated for her astounding performance, an outright act of criminality, whereas Ms Lange at least was put forward, but lost out to Judi Dench for 'Mrs Brown', possibly fair enough, as she already has a clutch, but these things never seem to get in the right hands-more the wrong, as the award for Paltrow for her utterly useless role in the listless 'Shakespeare In Love' two years later further underlined.
Fields away from those moribund dramas that either wither into saccharine bilge or the screechy theatrics of high pomp, 'A Thousand Acres' is so much more than the "soap opera" it has been routinely dismissed with, and with great performances and a lovely setting balancing out the story's harsher elements, it's well worth inheriting at this fine price.