T here’s nothing small about A Thousand Acres, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s 1997 film based on an award-winning novel by Jane Smiley. The story is based on King Lear, the expansive cinematography by Tak Fujimoto includes lots of lingering shots of Midwestern farmland, and the cast includes Jason Robards, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Colin Firth, Keith Carradine, and two teenagers who would go on to bigger and better things: Michelle Williams and Elizabeth Moss. The problem with aiming high, of course, is that you have a long way to fall, and A Thousand Acres took quite a beating from critics upon its original release. In retrospect, while this film definitely has its problems, and the story probably worked better on the printed page, it’s not nearly as bad as the contemporary reviews would have you believe.
Larry Cook (Jason Robards) lives on his thousand-acre Iowa farm with two of his daughters and their families; the third daughter chose a career in law over farming and now lives in Des Moines. When Larry decides its time to retire, he proposes to split the farm into three parts, one for each daughter (that’s the King Learbit, which is even reflected in the names of the three daughters). Sticking to the outlines of Shakespeare’s play, the two oldest daughters, Ginny (Jessica Lange) and Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer) accept gladly, while the youngest, Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is not delighted by the offer and quickly finds herself disinherited.
Retirement doesn’t suit Larry, and he quickly starts to lose his grip on reality. First he gets into an accident while driving drunk, then he insists on going out in a storm (an impressive scene shot with pure darkness in the background, but which sounds too much like a play to work in an otherwise realistic film). The modern interpretation of Larry’s predicament is that he is desending into senility, which is a far less satisfying explanation than the Shakespearean madness Robard’s over-the-top acting tries to evoke.
This dilemma is symptomatic of the main problem besetting the film as a whole—you can make a social drama in which people are treated for breast cancer (complete with mastectomy scars), become belatedly aware of the effects of drinking water contaminated by fertilizer runoff, and discuss how to keep their children safe from their sexually predatory grandfather, or you can make a Shakespearean drama that aspires for more general and noble themes, but mixing the two modes together risks producing a mongrel product that satisfies no one. And that’s what happens with A Thousand Acress—the finished film is an uneasy blend of noble aspirations and overly familiar melodrama, moving uneasily between the epic mode and the ever-so-specific presentation of a Lifetime movie. For all that, the cast is great, and the female leads in particular deliver performances far better than you would expect, giving the lack of success of the movie, so there are reasons to watch this film even if overall it’s less than successful.
A Thousand Acresis distributed on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber. Extras on the Blu-ray include an audio commentary by director Jocelyn Moorhouse and the trailers for this and five other films. | Sarah Boslaugh