The story told in "The House of the Spirits" is a lusty, passionate Latin melodrama, filled with ghosts, magic, poison and romance. The material demands to be handled with cheerful abandon.
But by some strange alchemy the film turns the story into a brooding, intellectualized drama. There are still ghosts, but they have all the verve of Hamlet's father.
The movie has been written and directed by Bille August, a Dane who directed Ingmar Bergman's autobiographical screenplay "Best Intentions." It strikes some of the same notes, which worked in a story about chilly Swedish Lutherans, but seem anacronistic in a story set on a South American ranch and filled with lust, violence, revolution and blood vows of revenge.
And what odd thinking must have gone into the casting of the movie: Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close form a checklist of the "last actors you'd think of while reading the famous novel by Isabel Allende, widow of the slain Chilean leader. To borrow Mark Twain's complaint about women's swearing, "They know the words, but not the music." It is not that Irons, Streep and Close are bad actors here; not at all. Irons in particular does a wellcrafted job of aging from a very young man to a very old one. But whatever he does, he always seems to be a man in the wrong society. As an ancient senator, outraged by being treated with lack of respect, he seems more like a transplanted European earl than an offended South American landowner.