Dir: Vadim Perelman. US. 2003. 126mins

House Of Sand And Fog is a film that takes itself very seriously, and it should. Adapted from the novel by Andre Dubus III, which was featured on Oprah Winfrey's Book Club, it's drenched in poetic atmospherics that many will find haunting and others pretentious. It's difficult to know exactly what DreamWorks were thinking when they decided to release this movie, so thoroughly death-centred as it turns out to be, at Christmas (the film is released on Dec 26).

One guess is that studio executives smelled Oscars in the superb performances of leads Jennifer Connelly and, especially, Ben Kingsley. To some extent, however, their excellent work is undone by neophyte director and screenwriter Vadim Perelman's clumsy adaptation and proclivity for melodramatic excess.

One of the film's strongest features is the freshness of its plot, despite superficial similarities with Duplex, a disposable recent comedy starring Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore. In House Of Sand And Fog, Kathy Nicolo (Connelly), apparently an addict (though this is never clearly established), loses a small house near the coast originally built by her father. Exiled Iranian Air Force Colonel Massoud Behrani (Kingsley), in the meantime, sees the forced auction of the property, for unpaid taxes, as a way to rebuild the life of his displaced family. When an initially sympathetic but unstable policeman named Lester (Eldard) intervenes on Kathy's behalf, events spiral out of control.

The basic premise of the film seems utterly plausible: both parties want the same thing, and both have equal moral claims to it. It's rare to see a Hollywood film dramatically structured so cleanly and convincingly, and it's a treat. And while Connelly's feckless character is hardly novel, the glimpse we get into the lives of the Iranian exiles seems new. Kingsley creates this character with the same minute care he brought to Sexy Beast, and is never less than completely believable both as a former member of the Shah's elite, and as father and husband struggling to cope with this impenetrable new land called America.

Director Perelman - who seems to have sprung from nowhere, with little prior major-league experience - is good at conveying a suggestive sense of trees, clouds, and yes, sand and fog, but he is less adept with scenes of high emotion, which never completely convince. Worse, as a scriptwriter, Perelman (along with the equally inexperienced Sean Otto, who has a co-writing credit) never finds the crucial cinematic shorthand that would translate his characters effectively from their novelistic existence.

As with another recent film drawn from a teeming novel, The Human Stain, the result is that important character motivation is often lacking where it's most needed. Furthermore, Perelman frenetically pulls out too many stops, so that, for example, an important character attempts suicide not once, but twice in succession, and several other scenes are milked for melodrama beyond what they can bear.

For the most part, however, the performances carry the film and if Academy voters can be convinced to look past its downbeat ending and a few glitches in the script, an Oscar nomination or two for acting is surely in the cards.

Production cos: Michael London Prods, Cobalt Media
US dist:
Michael London, Vadim Perelman, Sean Otto
Vadim Perelman, Sean Otto, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III
Roger Deakins
Lisa Zeno Churgin
Prod des:
Maia Javan
James Horner
Main cast:
Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Ron Eldard, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ashley Edner, Frances Fisher