I’ve never read the bestselling book, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, but I admire the concept of it infinitely more than I admire the film of the same name that was made from it. This is a poignant tale about what the idea of home means to people, how they will cling to it desperately, what happens when they are ripped from it unwillingly. Case in point, a struggle over a house on the Northern California coast. The owner, Kathy Niccolo (Jennifer Connelly), is a directionless young woman who has was wrongly evicted from it due to a clerical error by the country, and the man who buys it at auction is Colonel Behrani (Sir Ben Kingsley), an Iranian exile, who used the last of the money he brought with him ten years earlier.
The script by Vadim Perlman wants neither of these people to be villains. Prideful, perhaps, leading lives kept secret from their respective families, Kathy that her husband has left her, Behrani that he works as a highway laborer and gas station cashier. They are, rather, intended to be seen as victims of circumstances that may or may not entirely have been out of their control. Kathy for not opening her mail, learning about the pending eviction, and fighting it before the deputies arrived at her doorstep, Behrani for not giving an inch when the situation is made clear to him, a stubbornness that may have been the reason for his exile from his homeland. The problem is that while Perlman does succeed in making that point, he fails to give us any heroes either. Connelly gives a dull performance that fails to spring to life as she plays a singularly unlikable person, lashing out at the lawyer (Frances Fisher) trying to help her and pursuing the sympathetic, and unhappily married, deputy (Ron Eldard) who performed the eviction. There is in the way she coolly regards him all the tender passion of a feral cat preparing to pounce on a hapless gerbil. As for Kingsely, hammy does not begin to describe the preening, self-conscious approach to his part. That Perlman his given him dialogue that is lividly purple in its prose does not help the situation. Theres only so many ways to deliver a line like Do you remember the golden sunsets at our bungalow on the Caspian Sea?
Naturally things get intense as each side makes bad decisions that eventually lead to broken laws, bitter tears, and a whole passel of sturm und drang. But there is a bright spot in all of this and her name is Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Behranis wife. She is an actress who radiates an all-encompassing warmth. In a film where the other characters are cardboard representations of the films themes failing to convince us that they possess an interior life, or to generate a spark of empathy in us, Aghdashloo gives a subtle performance that reveals a tender heart and nurturing soul. A star of great magnitude in her native Iran, one of her only other English language performances, in Ramin Serry’s MARYAM, is well worth seeking out for its equal power.
A consideration of the very human longing for roots is at once timely and timeless. As is the other theme of how preconceived notions about other cultures are a recipe for disaster for everyone involved. They both deserve better than the cheapening melodrama afforded them in HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG.