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Salt Lake City Weekly Cinematic Shorthand

Moorhouse's film version of A Thousand Acres is only a tantalizing appetizer.

By Mary Dickson

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  Jane Smiley's monumental novel about an Iowa family who have lived on the same farm for four generations is one of the best works of contemporary fiction. Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, her powerful novel is destined to endure as an American classic. Which is precisely why making a film version, no matter how closely it tries to follow the book, is a risky business.

There's no way a movie can measure up to Smiley's emotionally intricate tale that casts the family farm as a King Lear-like kingdom. The language, the relationship of the characters to the land and to each other is too complex and too nuanced to translate well to a two-hour feature film. The substructure gets lost in the abridgment.

For anyone who has read A Thousand Acres, Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse's film version, faithful as it is, will be a disappointment. Too much had to be left unexplored, unexplained and underdeveloped. It's as though everything were done in a kind of cinematic shorthand.

For those who haven't read the book, the film may reek of melodrama. It's a tale of woe from start to finish with all the elements crammed into too short a time frame to lend them the necessary context and dimension. I found myself longing for a Masterpiece Theatre series that continued week after week to dive headlong into another chapter of the Cook family saga.

Regardless of her film's inevitable shortcomings, however, Moorhouse makes a commendable effort to bring A Thousand Acres to the screen. The performances by Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer (doing their best to look like hard-working rural farm wives) are riveting. Lange looms as the film's largest presence in the role of Ginny, the oldest daughter who also serves as narrator. It's wonderful to see how Lange has ripened and matured as an actress. Even her voice has deepened. She has a force and a command that reels you in, making Ginny the most sympathetic character.

As the headstrong and angry Rose, Pfeiffer, too, is a strong presence, though her character's pain never strikes the blow to the core that Ginny's does. Both daughters and their husbands live on their father's thousand acres of the "richest land on earth."

The youngest daughter, Caroline (Jennifer Jason-Leigh, again pouting her way through a role), has left the land to become a lawyer in Des Moines, though she remains in her father's heart as his favorite. When, during a family picnic, Larry Cook (Jason Robards in a very convincing role), the demanding patriarch, impulsively decides to divide the farm among his three daughters, the unraveling of the Cook family and the farm that is their shared heritage begins. Caroline hesitates, telling Daddy, "I don't know. I'll have to think about it." His pride wounded, Larry mistakes Caroline's caution for rejection and disinherits her. The land will be split between Ginny and Rose.

Larry regrets his impulsive decision almost immediately, complaining self-pityingly that, "I got nothing." His regrets soon mutate into paranoia, and he convinces the town that his "bitches" maneuvered the whole takeover. He recruits Caroline to help him get the farm back. Now, sisters are pitted against sisters, father against daughters, husbands against wives.

A Thousand Acres
A Thousand Acres stare: (from left) Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfieffer and Jennifer Jason-Leigh strike a pose as farmers' daughters.
Directed by
Jocelyn Moorhouse
Based on the novel by
Jane Smiley
Jessica Lange
Michelle Pfieffer
Jennifer Jason-Leigh strike

Into the mix are thrown adultery, cancer, toxic waste, suicide and incest. In the book, this works. In the film, it's another matter. Too many of these important subplots are reduced to a few lines. When Jess (Colin Firth), the handsome son of their father's best friend returns to town and seduces both sisters, he asks Ginny why she doesn't have children. Her reply, that she has had five miscarriages, leads Jess to tell her it must be the fertilizer seeping into the well water. But that's all the screen time this important twist gets. Likewise with Rose's breast cancer: Only a few lines hint at how a mastectomy has affected her marriage.

But then, the film completely fails to provide any sense of the complicated relationships between the women and their husbands. Keith Carradine as Ginny's husband, Ty, is rendered an "aw, shucks," ineffective yes-man, while Kevin Anderson as Rose's husband, Pete, is dispatched with so quickly that his death hardly registers.

Rose's daughters are also relegated to the vaguest of backgrounds. They have a few cameos, but you never really believe Pfeiffer's character as the mother of these girls or the wife of her husband. The childless Ginny's relationship to her nieces is omitted altogether.

Men suffer the most in Moorhouse's treatment. They're too easily dismissed as ragers and drinkers, rapists and brutes, two-timers or unforgivably weak men who don't have much of a place in these women's lives, other than to annoy, disappoint, seduce or abuse. The movie doesn't have time to lend the men anything more than an all-too-simplistic treatment. Also missing from the film is the importance of the land and the character's vital attachment to it, which the book so beautifully captures.

Fortunately, the relationship of Rose and Ginny is so powerfully portrayed that it goes a long way toward making up for the film's other flaws. The pivotal scene in which Rose forces Ginny to confront their father's past sexual abuse is handled with polished restraint, making it an unforgettably potent and painful interchange. While Ginny has tried to forget the trauma, Rose clings to it, determined to have vengeance. Her hate becomes her only comfort, her refusal to "forgive the unforgivable," her only accomplishment.

What most infuriates her is that a man who could do such a thing to his own daughters can "go into the community and get respect and power." The farm belongs to them because they have paid the price. "You think a breast weighs a pound?" Rose asks Ginny. "That's my pound of flesh."

A Thousand Acres is definitely worth seeing, even though it can't compare to the book. It's like a tantalizing appetizer for the main entrée. If Moorhouse's film brings more readers to Smiley's book, that may be its greatest achievement.

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