It seems that every year as the holidays roll around, Hollywood treats us to some kind of wacky family comedy showing a group of relatives exhibiting a comedic version of dysfunction. This year the niche is filled by Almost Christmas, which features familiar faces Danny Glover and Mo’nique as members of a clan which begrudgingly gathers together for Thanksgiving.
Should anyone actually be in the mood to watch a deer portrait of a dysfunctional family on film, however, I suggest turning to the 1997 drama A Thousand Acres, in which Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange played a pair of sisters in this emotional retelling of King Lear.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres is the tale of a pair of midwestern sisters named Rose (Pfeiffer) and Ginny (Lange), who have both made lives and homes for themselves on their father Larry’s (Jason Robards) sprawling farm. When their father decides to form a corporation, bequeathing equal parts of land to his daughters (which also includes his youngest, Caroline [Jennifer Jason Leigh]), everyone but her is ecstatic. Not long after the signing of the papers, however, Larry’s mood begins to turn, and a wedge is driven between the family with Rose and Ginny at the center.
Like most works written by Shakespeare, King Lear was ripe for modern interpretation by the time author Jane Smiley’s novel was published. While the setting of A Thousand Acres is miles away from the play’s original text, it’s interesting how the film’s setting works so well with regard to the story. Taking place on an Iowa farm in the dead of summer, the locale provides the perfect backdrop for all of the film’s drama, while more importantly giving a real defining sense of the kind of world that has made these characters who they are. Most symbolic is the farm setting’s representation of land, signifying wealth and prosperity. It’s incredibly telling to see how the film takes the titular thousand acres, full of majestic grace and beauty, and uses it to unearth a mountain of secrets and regrets, tearing a family apart in the process.
Speaking of secrets, A Thousand Acres has plenty to go around. To begin with, there’s Ginny’s marriage to the loving Ty (Keith Carradine), which has held on despite multiple devastating miscarriages but is now rocked by Ginny’s intense attraction to the intriguing Jess (Colin Firth). There’s the state of Larry’s mental health and his shunning of both Ginny and Rose, which causes him to run to the protective and suspicious Caroline. Darkest of all, however, is the repressed memory of sexual abuse which Rose forces Ginny to remember, almost against her will, which culminates in a court case with the family land at the heart and center.
A Thousand Acres boasts nothing but great performances from a great stable of actors including Carradine, Firth, Pat Hingle as a neighboring farmer, John Carroll Lynch as a longtime friend and attorney, and Leigh as the conflicted youngest daughter. None of them touch Robards, though, who gives one of his best last performances here as Rose and Ginny’s monstrous father.
But the film belongs to its two leading ladies (both of whom also served as two of the film’s producers). Watching Lange and Pfeiffer act off of each other in two such complex roles is compelling through and through. With the former embodying dignified vulnerability and the latter displaying steely toughness, the two actresses give some of their best and most stunningly underrated work.
While the film was marketed well enough, A Thousand Acres failed with both critics and audiences. It didn’t help that Lange expressed her displeasure with the finished version in interviews, stating that the final cut was not the one she believed did the film the most justice. For her part, Pfeiffer traveled the talk show circuit (a practice she hadn’t done since appearing on The Tonight Show in the early ’80s) in support of the film, but left A Thousand Acres feeling she never really captured her character’s essence, and as a result declared the performance she ultimately gave to be one of her most unsatisfying.
I remember when a friend of mine was required to read A Thousand Acres for a literature class and asked if she could get away with just watching the film instead. I told her the decision was hers, but that reading the book was perhaps the better option considering how condensed the film version ended up being by comparison. She opted for film and late one night called me in tears, saying the final credits had just rolled and how A Thousand Acres was one of the saddest movies she’d seen in some time and made her think hard about the relationship between her and her own sister. While many, including its own stars, found much to dislike about the film, it was for individuals such as her that A Thousand Acres was made.