December 2003

By Wilson Morale
Distributor: Dreamworks SKG
Directed by: Vadim Perelman
Producer: Michael London
Screenwriter: Vadim Perelman, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III
Composer: James Horner
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Ron Eldard, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonathan Ahdout, & Frances Fisher 


There seems to be a lot of interest in novels this winter. From Mystic River, to Girl with a Pearl Earring, and to The Lord of the Rings. All of these books were best sellers. The questions people have in mind when there's a film adaptation of these books is whether it can be translated on to the big screen to their satisfaction. Some of have succeeded, while others have not (The Human Stain), and yet, we still have more film adaptations coming out. One such film is House of Sand and Fog, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III. I had never heard of him or the book until a friend mentioned to me that the book was on the best seller list and also on the Oprah Book Club. Although I hadn't read the book, the film is a haunting, thought-provoking, dramatic film. It not only features the challenging issues of right and wrong, but the acting is top notch, especially the work given by Ben Kingsley. Unlike the previous music video directors who made their film debuts this year such as Paul Hunter (Bulletproof Monk), and Marcus Nispel (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and Glen Wiseman (Underworld), Vadim Perelman stands out amongst the best of them. His film is powerful, riveting, and definitely one of the year's best.

Kathy Nicolo (Connelly) is a depressed recovering alcoholic trying her best to get over the fact that her husband left her. She has nothing of worth but the beachfront home that her father left to her and her brother. Leaving unread mail around the house, Kathy's dismayed when local authorities come to evict her due to her failure to pay $500 in back taxes. Not only is she losing the house, but her mother is coming for a visit to see her and husband. Things go bad to worse when her legal aid informs her house was sold legally at a tax auction for a fraction of its value to someone else. That someone happens to be Massoud Amir Behrani (Kingsley), a former colonel in Iran. When the Shah was no longer in power, Massoud had to flee from Iran with his family and immigrate to the United States. That meant leaving his wealth and standard of living behind. Working menial jobs at a construction site and a convenience store is not enough to support his family. When Massoud buys the house, he hopes to return to financial prominence by selling it for its real value.

Due to a bureaucratic error in which she should have never lost the house, Kathy has had to live from one motel to another until Lester Burton (Eldard), the cop who initially helped her move her things when she was evicted, offers her a place to stay while he trys to help her get the house back. While Kathy feels that Massoud "stole" her house from under her, he feels differently as his actions were done legally. Nadi (Aghdashloo), Massoud's obedient wife, feels for Kathy but loves the house just as well. The situation goes further than expected when Lester, who by now has left his wife for Kathy, goes beyond the law to make Kathy happy again.

The quest for happiness is the heart and soul of this film. What makes this more intriguing and satisfying is that all of the characters are so well developed that you can't be sure who to root for, which makes for an interesting debate. No one is at fault for the situation that pits Kathy against Massoud. For Kingsley, this is a welcome return to a solid role. Since he won the Best Actor Oscar in the early 80s for Ghandi, he's been saddled with decent roles, but not defining. With his role as the crazy mobster in "Sexy Beast" and with this film, it reaffirms his status as one of the best actors of the last 20 years. Jennifer Connelly is equally impressive in her role and has done something that most of the Best Supporting Actress winners haven't done; and that is elevating her win to a bigger role. With her role in the The Hulk as well as with this film, Jennifer has proven that she can take on any role from any genre and inject the passion it needs to make it credible. Perelman has done a remarkable job in adapting a story where there are no clear cut decisions to be made or no traditional villains to root against. This is a story where everyone is a victim but ultimately someone is going to suffer more. As with the two leads, the work given by Aghdashloo and Eldard are amazing. Eldard, who's been more of a character actor in the films he's been in (Sleepers, Deep Impact, Ghost Ship), finally has a role that will stand out amongst those other films. Aghdashloo, a newcomer by Hollywood standards, has been acting for years, and displays the emotions that the situation has put her character in. Nadi's and Lester's actions may be questionable, but not their commitment. It's the loyalty they have for their loved ones that make them challenge their own faith. Deakins' cinematography carefully illustrates bleakness that all parties have to face. The fogginess of the coastal setting sets the tone of the film when there's no sun to show a bright day forthcoming. House of Sand and Fog is a compelling, amazing, and somber film that breaks the mode of conventional storytelling.