As the first I’d ever heard of Chilean authoritarian Augusto Pinochet and his reign of terror, Isabel Allende’s Of Love and Shadows has lingered with me since a high-school read. Not only is it a gripping tale of love, terror and defiance, Allende herself was the daughter of the president Pinochet ousted.
Although I’d not heard of Allende’s The House of the Spirits or its 1993 film adaptation, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Blu-ray release from Via Vision’s Imprint label. It certainly has a stacked cast, with Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder, Antonio Banderas, Vanessa Redgrave and Glenn Close. Perhaps you’re also wondering why you’ve never heard of it. Well, it is simply not very good.
Allende’s first novel, Spirits catapulted her to literary stardom — a sprawling generational tale set in Chile and tinged with magical realism. Director Bille August (who also adapted the novel) simply sets the film “in South America,” casts that almost entirely Anglo cast as South Americans (Irons’ Chilean accent goes about as well as you expect), and kind of ignores the magical realism altogether. The result is a tedious film that seems to miss much of its own text.
Although Streep and Irons’ characters are married, there’s more chemistry between Streep and Close (as her sister-in-law, who lives with them at a large estate) — suggesting subtext of the two ladies enjoying a love life behind Irons’ back. Only in the final half-hour does the film kick into gear, when Irons’ conservative patriarch must reckon with a military coup he has politically supported even as it personally affects his granddaughter (Ryder) who’s romantically involved with a revolutionary (Banderas).
Still, it’s a sad culmination for a story meant to revolve around generations of women. August also directed the 1998 Les Misérables with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush; only because Tom Hooper’s musical version is so bad does August not wind up wearing a dunce cap for poorly adapting works of classic literature.
Imprint has certainly given this film more extras than it’s probably due — two cuts (the U.S. and international versions), an interview with first assistant director Guy Travers, and an audio commentary with film historian Scott Harrison. The subtitles do a great job conveying the film’s events, especially when it comes to music; it’s an appreciable touch even if the movie is subpar. Still, a great package for an undeserving film has encouraged me to read the book, so it’s not a waste.