The House of the Spirits

by criticalhit009

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

The House of the Spirits (1993) is a straight up prestige project, and right up Jeremy Irons’ alley. It’s a literally adaptation from a novel by Isabel Allende, and stars Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Antonio Banderas, Winona Ryder, and Irons himself. Of course, the reason why no one remembers this film is because it isn’t any good.

For one thing, it’s too long. Scenes just drift along with little purpose, and we get the sense that the film’s attempts at grandeur are trying to make up for the lacklustre pacing. While the novel it’s based on is an epic tale of sorts, a history of a mythologized Chile infused with magical realism, the film lacks the strength to carry its story across, further burdened by the whitewashed casting and poor makeup.

The film’s whitewashed casting is perhaps the only thing memorable about the film, as the majority of the lead character are played by white actors playing Chilean aristocrats. Last Week Tonight dredged up this film’s name in its piece on Hollywood whitewashing, and captures the issue best.

What’s worse is that the makeup job for Irons is particularly distracting. He’s made up to look like a young miner out to seek his fortune early in the film, with a distracting tan and faux-curly Latin hair. Later in the film, he look less like an old man and more like a decaying corpse.

But the film isn’t a failure because of its whitewashing. It’s a failure because it’s a tepid prestige picture, failing to incite or intrigue. It’s symbolism is obvious, its motifs trite. While the novel’s historic scope likely works in fiction, the film’s failure in adaptation leaves the story’s motifs to fall flat. The marriage parlour, Esteban (Irons) riding his house to sow the seeds for destruction; these motifs failed to register as strongly as they should.

Irons performance is passable, but he isn’t given much to do here except act menacingly. It is the worst film of his I’ve seen so far, and I’d rate it even lower than turkeys like Dungeons and Dragons. At least his performance is campy fun in that film, and isn’t a slog to watch. For this film, I admitted watching it at 1.5x speed, skipping scenes, ultimately finding that I didn’t miss anything at all.

In terms of Irons career, this film is par of the course of what he looks for: prestige pictures, often literary adaptations. House of the Spirits illustrates why such dogmatic pursuit doesn’t always end up well. Of course, Irons was at the peak of his career in the 90s, and was about to capitalize on his new-found stardom.