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Picks and Pans Review: The House of the Spirits

updated 04/11/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/11/1994 01:00AM

Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, Antonio Banderas

This adaptation of Isabel Allende's epic of love, loss, redemption and spiritualism has removed all the juice from the best-selling 1985 novel, leaving a hacienda-high pile of pulp. It is the 1920s in an unspecified South American country, and the poor-but-ambitious Irons wants to marry the beautiful daughter (Teri Polo) of a wealthy family. Fine, say the girl's parents, but can you support her in the manner to which she is accustomed? Irons rises to their challenge, striking it rich as a gold prospector only to find that Polo has suddenly and violently died, a tragedy foretold by her strange, clairvoyant younger sister. The little girl is so horrified by her own powers that she retreats into a silenee that lasts two decades. Irons, by then a powerful and vile landowner who rapes a peasant woman and beats underlings, decides for no apparent reason to court the long silent sister (Streep). But Irons, who falls passionately in love with his bride, doesn't figure on his wife's otherworldly powers or the intense bond that Streep forges with his own long-suffering sister (Close). Nor does Irons guess that, another two decades later, his and Streep's beloved daughter (Ryder) will defy his wishes and ally herself with a peasant revolutionary (Banderas). As the multigenerational story creeps toward a conclusion, the various family members become players and victims in a series of horrific events. Those who have not read the fanciful, ironic The House of the Spirits will be baffled by the movie, which frequently leaves relationships and motivations unexplained. Those who have read the novel will probably be annoyed by the liberties the screenwriters have taken. There is compensation in the movie's visual splendor, but the star performances are almost uniformly wooden. (R)

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