A scene in A Thousand Acres shows Ginny (Jessica Lange) receiving a letter from her sister Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer), pausing, then opening a drawer that contains many other unopened letters addressed in the same handwriting. The image conveys, economically and deftly, everything we need to know about this fraught sibling relationship.
And yet a voice-over narration from Ginny drones on the soundtrack during this scene, spelling out every detail that we can clearly observe for ourselves, and turning its visual understatement into redundant, bombastic overstatement.
In this struggle between voice and image we can discern both the problems and the pleasures of Jocelyn Moorhouse's second American film (after the similarly uneven How to Make an American Quilt ).
The story is a family chronicle, although more circumscribed in its scope than American Quilt or The Joy Luck Club (1993). The women are the emotional centre of the piece: Rose, Ginny and Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Much unites these three sisters but – since Jane Smiley's source novel is a distant reworking of King Lear – they are also torn apart by the different ways they choose to either confront or deny reality.
In Moorhouse's previous film, the men were ciphers – mere fantasy figures for the women. This time around, the depiction of men is not just casual, it is ferocious. Every guy in this story is a coward, a louse or an abuser – if not all three in one. At the epicentre of the patriarchal hell depicted in A Thousand Acres is old Larry (Jason Robards) – a chap whose stoic silence wins him respect in the community, but hides some truly monstrous propensities.
Strangely, the film's focus on Larry's evil acts and their emotional legacy tends to wander. Like other literary adaptations by Laura Jones (The Portrait of a Lady  and Oscar and Lucinda ), this one lacks a central, binding, driving theme. At times it is about abuse issues; at others it is about the power play going on between the three sisters. Most unfortunately, it segues for its last act into a soppy and scarcely credible New Age tract about love, hope and forgiveness.
Yet, for all its clunkiness and meandering, A Thousand Acres is an undeniably affecting film. This is a movie animated by performances rather than any niceties of style, and the key players sustain a demanding level of intensity and seriousness. In particular, the face-off between Lange – initially pleasant to a fault but eventually discovering her own darker emotions – and the more abrasive Pfeiffer is a compelling, touching spectacle.
Ultimately, the film is somewhat rescued from the abyss of saccharine overstatement by its fundamental simplicity. Moorhouse wisely resists the current movie craze for gothic flashbacks, concentrating instead on moment-to-moment matters of psychological survival: surges of anger or tenderness, gestures of resistance and resignation, precious moments of release or escape, frazzled reactions and interactions.
These women are struggling, in their various ways, to lighten an impossibly heavy burden from the past – and their intimate, sombre, melancholy adventure is hard to entirely resist.
© Adrian Martin May 1998