Measuring the spirits
In The House Of The Spirits, Jeremy Irons swaps his emotional cold-fish persona for hot South American passions. Alan Morrison reports.
Every so often, the film industry leaves behind an unmade project that generations can only contemplate with eyebrows raised. What, one wonders, would have been the legacy of a pre- Merchant-lvory Remains Of The Day package with Mike Nichols directing Jeremy irons and Meryl Streep from a Harold Pinter script? irons had been wanting to work with Streep again ever since they collaborated in I98! on The F reneh Lieutenant's Woman; he had also been on the look-out for the opportunity to team up again with Glenn Close after his Oscar glory in Reversal Of Fortune. And so, when a Euro-financed adaptation of The House Of The Spirits came along, it seemed that he was able to kill both birds, so to speak. with the same stone.
The film, based on Isabel Allende‘s novel, tells of the rise and fall of Esteban Trueba (irons). from the early days when he wooed Rosa Del Valle but married her mystical sister Clara (Streep). Taking over her family's ailing estate, and bringing with him his spinster sister Ferula (Close), Esteban beomes a powerful, unpopular landlord and, eventually, a ruthless politician, who loses the love of his daughter Blanca (Winona Ryder) when he vetoes her marriage to the peasant Pedro (Antonio Banderas). Following so far?
‘As an actor, you can’t be more than you know, so it you don’t spend time on your lite and on things that you care about, your work will tend to become shallower and more repetitive.’
Bille August‘s script, the bait that made Irons bite, would have run for over three hours in its original form. Considered too expensive by the American studio who had ﬁrst shown interest in the project and too unwieldy by potential distributors, alterations had to be made. According to lrons, August ‘didn‘t shorten it, but simpliﬁed it slightly so we could make it on a smaller budget“. In the end, he retained the domestic melodrama, but lost most of the magical elements that gives the book its appeal — we still have the ‘House’, as it were, but the ‘Spirits‘ have been evicted. Fans of Allende's novel could be forgiven for believing that Bille August — for all the acclaim he received for Pelle The Conqueror and The Best Intentions — was not the best person to have been in the director’s chair, as he seems to have blown a chill
Scandanavian wind over her hot South American passions.
Irons, although he stresses that he doesn‘t want to appear ‘disloyal‘ to a film of which he is obviously proud, is nevertheless careful as he picks his way around why the final version ofthe film doesn’t quite meet his expectations. ‘l think it is very evenly paced,‘ he says, weighing each word, ‘especially in the first two-thirds. which is a Northern European habit and very much Bille’s trademark on the film. Had Stephen Frears or Martin Scorsese done that story, it could perhaps have been longer without
feeling any longer. It’s set in South America, but it's
not a South American story. This is a domestic story with a political background, and that political
I movement has happened in most countries of the world. It was the domestic side, the emotional side, that most interested Bille . . . the film doesn’t have
that area of strange and bizarre spirituality — seances
; and all that — which the book has. Well. in two-and-a- :
quarter hours, you can only do so much.‘
The dynamic, aging role of Esteban allowed irons to make a clean break from the cold. intemalised characters that had made his name internationally: the enigmatic Claus Von Bulow in Reversal 0f ; Fortune, the Tory MP embarking on a self-
5 destructive affair in Damage, the tragic Jesuit pn'est in The Mission. But in the years since he broke
through in the landmark television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, his performances away from this type — at which he undoubtedly excels — have been of mixed success. His comic ability was surely lost under the (mis)direction of Michael Winner in A Chorus 0f Disapproval, although it hit a surer note in the low-key Danny. The Champion Of The World. Elsewhere, however, the complete emotional. physical, moral and mental breakdown of the Mantle twins in David Cronenberg‘s Dead Ringers provided his finest moment: the rendering, in a single movie,
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Jeremy Irons: ‘hreaks iron the cold, intemalised characters that made his nae’
of two personalities bound by genetic similarities yet subtly distinguished by individual character traits. Esteban’s raging passions, his physicality, his distracting, mid-Atlantic, marbles-in-the-mouth accent — all seem to be bouncing around the movie with no sense of direction, as do Glenn Close‘s funereal Ferula and Meryl Streep’s miscast Clara.
3 Either Bille August couldn't choreograph all the ; elements under his command, or the actors decided
to serve up every piece of hatn in the butcher's shop. But it was important to lrons, as an actor, to tackle something new after doing, virtually back-to-back, Steven Soderbergh‘s Kafka (currently showing in London). Waterland, Damage and Cronenberg's M. Butterﬂy (opening here in May). After he finished shooting The House Of The Spirits last spring, he decided to spend more time with his actress wife Sinead Cusack and their family, in order to reassess where his career has reached.
‘I decided to stop for at least a year and try to create an artistic vacuum in myself, and see what would be sucked into that,‘ he explains. ‘I was beginning to bore myself. i mean, as an actor, you can‘t be more than you know, so ifyou don't spend time on your life and on things that you care about, your work will tend to become shallower and more repetitive . . . it seems to me that to be based here in the UK is the best thing for me; not necessarily the best thing for a rich and successful career. but I think I'm successful enough. Fame is a very unhealthy thing, very unnatural, an imbalance. All it is, after all, is that more people know you than you know . . . Anyway, what always stops me getting too big-headed or too depressed is the knowledge that for every person who thinks I’m good, there‘s someone who thinks l‘m shit. And vice versa.‘
The House Of The Spirits opens in Scotland on Friday I8 March.
14 The List 11-24 March 1994