A Thousand Acres
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse. Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jason Robards, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Colin Firth, Keith Carradine, Kevin Anderson, Pat Hingle. Screenplay: Laura Jones (from the novel by Jane Smiley).

The three-generational farm family featured in A Thousand Acres is increasingly caught in a war over the nature of property. What does it mean to own something, the film asks, and what responsibilities accompany that ownership? Can anything—land, lives, children—really be owned? Is an owner always (or ever) at perfect liberty to use (or abuse) their property however he or she desires?

While the central debate in the story concerns the farmland of the title, the same questions of ownership and management apply to film adaptations themselves. Is the job of the filmmakers to mimic the source material as nearly as possible, or do they have the right to "remodel" the property? As Hamlet might have asked, had he been a screenwriter, the question is whether to be or not to be "like the book."

A Thousand Acres is derived from Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, itself a loose adaptation of King Lear that carries Shakespeare's plot into present-day Iowa. Strangely, the film veers wildly between a pedestrian fidelity to Smiley's words and a surprising indifference to the sequence of her plot. Ultimately, the movie works, but not nearly as well as it should.

Larry Cook (Jason Robards) has been farming his thousand acres so long and so well that his stature within his Iowa community is almost monarchical. "No one within 50 miles ever made any decision without consulting Daddy," says his oldest daughter Ginny (Jessica Lange), a modest and irresolute woman who has always lived under her father's thumb; at age 36, she still walks the half-mile to his house every morning so his breakfast is ready by six.

Ginny accepts her father's authority with an almost frightening passivity, but his is hardly the only strong will in town. Her sister Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer) is always frank and sometimes ruthless in her pursuit of what she wants. Their youngest sister Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) left the farm early to pursue a career in law, but she makes her opinions known even at long distance.

When Larry announces his plan to divide his farm among his three daughters—essentially a scheme to beat inheritance taxation—Rose accepts eagerly and Ginny goes along with her. Caroline, vastly separated from her sisters in age and experience, hesitates at the idea and is promptly disinherited by her father. She heads back to Des Moines with her suspicions of the transaction intact.

With good reason, as it happens. No sooner has the land been transferred than Larry feels supplanted, staring out the window for hours when he isn't drinking his way through "car rides all over Creation." At first, Ginny and Rose normalize his behavior. "He has nothing else to do," says Ginny, while her brassier sister offers that "perfecting that death's-head stare of his is going to be his life's work from now on, so we better get used to it."

Soon, however, Larry's boredom ignites with his alcoholism into a raging resentment of his daughters' activities. In turn, Ginny's irritation explodes into indignance and impatience, while Rose reopens an arsenal of past offenses to explain her hatred of her father. Both sides seek allies to their cause, but a contagious mistrust infects even the strongest and sturdiest relationships.

The script itself is often as wobbly as the short-term ententes formed among the characters. Screenwriter Laura Jones, who so bravely and audaciously recontextualized last winter's The Portrait of a Lady, shows a disappointing, almost slavish devotion to Smiley's prose. In fact, the movie's first half-hour plays like a book on tape, with transparent thumbnail characterizations ("I guess you remember that Rose always says what she thinks") and redundant observations ("We all understood that something important had just happened.")

When a cast this pedigreed is assembled for one film, though, talk will inevitably center around the performances. The sensation among the actors is Pfeiffer, who boldly taps a well of fury deeper and more poisonous than anything in the histrionic In the Company of Men. "We're not going to be sad," she swears at the film's conclusion. "We're going to be angry until we die."

For all of her delicate beauty, Pfeiffer's acting has long been unappreciated for its sheer muscularity. As in her best work (probably The Fabulous Baker Boys, Batman Returns, and the unfairly dismissed Frankie and Johnny), she executes an intensely physical performance here; her eye movements alone have more verve than the whole of Robards' interpretation. Rose sees herself as the most aggrieved party in the plot, but she is also one of its surest agents, a sort of director figure—note how many shots of other characters include Pfeiffer's arm or shoulder in the side of the frame, as if she is literally steering the action.

Lange, another of our most compelling actresses, is unfortunately stuck in a role that strongly recalls her earlier, more interesting work in Frances and Music Box. One thing an audience should not feel in a drama this malignant is a niggling déją vu. Leigh, for once, drops the mannerisms, but her brisk performance is essentially a protracted walk-on. The husbands and other secondary characters barely register, presented only as footnotes in Jones's script and lacking any vitality.

Evidence persists throughout A Thousand Acres that a bolder, more harrowing film exists on someone's cutting-room floor. Touchstone Pictures—Disney's live-action film division, i.e., the home of Pretty Woman—was notoriously frightened by Moorhouse's first cut, which preserved the higher stakes of secrecy, manipulation, and even murder from Smiley's novel that did not survive to the final product. So displeased was Moorhouse with the changes that only recently was she convinced to have her name included among the credits of the picture.

So A Thousand Acres-as-film eventually achieves a fascinating symmetry with the events of its own plot. Like an epic sweep of land or a childhood resentment, a Pulitzer-winning novel is a trying and difficult inheritance, and without proper stewardship can degenerate quickly. The cornerstone virtues of the film—Shakespeare's brutal story and Smiley's ingenious new context—are enough to sustain a solid two-hour drama, but Pfeiffer excepted, the filmmakers reap little from the rich soil they have been handed. Grade: C–

(in September 1997: C+)

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Jessica Lange

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