Thursday, 12 July 2012

A Thousand Acres: A Daughter's Story

Everyone knows the story of King Lear but fewer people have heard of the retelling of the famous story through the eyes of his daughters. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse (How To Make An American Quilt) A Thousand Acres is the 1997 film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name by Jane Smiley. It has been summarised as "King Lear in a Cornfield" but this emotional family saga has far more to it than that. I was surprised, while reading some reviews of it online, that it has been deeply criticised for being, among other things, feminist, unconvincing, unfocused, too focused on women's issues and lacklustre. I have to say this confused me a lot because I thought it was a really good film. Obviously it's going to be telling the female side of the story as it comes from Ginny (Jessica Lange) and Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer)'s point of view and it really irritates me when anything that is just about women is supposed to be "feminist." I'm going to read the book so I can judge for myself whether, as one critic said, it's been diluted, but I would be very surprised if you don't watch it and feel shocked by the powerful characters and unexpected revelations. The screenplay is written by Laura Jones and perhaps as I haven't yet read either King Lear or the original book, I can appreciate her writing more. In my opinion, its often this way round if you see the book before the movie.

The plot revolves around successful farmer and drinker Larry Cook, who portrays the patriarch King Lear (acted by Jason Robards) signing over his thousand acres to his two older daughters, Ginny (Goneril) and Rose (Regan) to avoid inheritance taxes. His third and  youngest daughter Caroline who represents Cordelia (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) refuses his offer and finds herself cut off from the family and her previously doting father. Suddenly, the once apparently content and peaceful family farm is host to violent arguments, disturbing secrets and the division of the Cook family. Running parallel to this is the return of Jess (Colin Firth), described by Rose as "the prodigal son" to his father Harold's neighbouring farm and the romance between him and the two Cook sisters who both happen to be unhappily married. The introduction of Jess happens at the beginning of the film and could be interpreted as the event which sets the plot into motion, as at his welcome party Larry announces his plans to skirt the taxman and pass on the farm. Jess is also a useful plot device which allows Ginny to explain to the audience all the backstory and relationships of people in the family: who is married or engaged to whom, who has children and who doesn't. This sets the scene and allows events to take place without having to be explained more than necessary. It also foreshadows the ending, in which most of these initial relationships have been ended, irrevocably changed or destroyed and the farm sold. Rose's death is a way in which the writers tie up the loose ends and show us how it will never be the same again for the characters left behind. Jessica Lange was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the damaged Ginny which I think she deserved to win (although I don't know what other films were nominated.) I also found out the idea for my name came from my mother thinking she was incredible, so now I think I should watch lots of her films. She has a very unusual face and I'm quite happy to be named after her.

 The film is descibed on the DVD box as part of The Costume Collection which I think means it's part of the costume drama genre. Personally, I didn't pay very much attention throughout the film to the costumes. Other than being suitable farm clothes and suggesting character differences I didn't feel they played an important role. The sisters both dress quite conservatively, in dresses that fit their lives as farm wives and members of the church. Rose wears a lot more make up than Ginny, despite being younger and is altogether a harder character, in looks and personality. Ginny has a much softer face and expresses emotion more frequently and in fact cries easily throughout the film. Both quite childlike in different ways, seeming more like a rebellious and frustrated teenager and a needy, clingy young girl than the grown women they are. This theme is explored as they take more control over their lives and the effect of their father's influence over them is revealed; churning up repressed memories and emotions in both women. In this way, I think it's fair to descibe the A Thousand Acres as a coming-of-age story, as it's about family, emotional change and the growing distance from parents and the freedom that comes from finally leaving your childhood home.

It's a 15 rating which at first seemed a bit overzealous but as the story progressed I agreed with it more and more. Personally I think some younger people may have been fine with it but there is bad language and some stuff that a sensitive 13 year old might have been disturbed by. I know the first time I watched it, I was stunned by it all and couldn't really take it in until I watched it again. This time, as I knew what was coming, I concentrated more on the performances and the writing, although it was still shocking and emotional to watch. For me, one line in particular struck a chord: Ginny, after realising her two nieces will lose both their parents as Rose's cancer relapses, says "The loss of parent is the one crime for which there can be no compensation." OWTTE. I thought that was a beautiful way of descibing it and her concern and love for her nieces as she takes them in as her own is truly touching. For some reason, I expected to see at the end of the film, a scene with her and Pammy (Michelle Williams) and Linda (Elizabeth Moss) after they move in with her, but it never materialised. I love it when this happens because it means I've imagined the characters lives long after the end of the film and makes it more believable for me.
Overall, I think it's a great film that's well written and powerful. The cast are very talented and successful actors but there wasn't a moment where I didn't believe one hundred pecent in the story. The gorgeous scenery and shots of the sky and Iowa farmhouses give the plot a beautiful setting and assert the role of nature in the characters lives. From start to finish, I would descibe it as profound. It touches on many universal truths such as love, loss, death, aging, illness and abuse. I disagree with the suggestion in the blurb: "Best Friends. Bitter Rivals. Sisters." as I don't think the three sisters are best friends: Caroline is not very close to the other two and Rose and Ginny do have a difficult relationship. However they aren't really rivals either so in fact the only word that rings true is sisters. I think that word contains all that is said in best friends and bitter rivals so it's unnecessary to say that. I know my sister and I can be both at times, but at the end of the day we're neither: we're just sisters. There isn't really another bond you can compare it to and I think the film actually focuses more on the relationship between the father and his children so it's a little misleading to suggest the film is completely about the sisters. I am giving this film 3 and half stars as I think it is believable, interesting and beautifully filmed, however there could be more development in the relationship between the three sisters, and Caroline's story especially, has potential to be much more than it is.

The main question is the same as the one at the heart of King Lear: Who really loved their father more? Was it Rose and Ginny who cared for him despite all he had done to them or Caroline who had never experienced anything but love and protection from him and refused the farm and tried to sue to get it back? The film explores a different side to the three daughters and I think the main point made is that things are never black and white and there are always reasons for people's behaviour, however cruel or naive it may seem. There is a lot of food for thought, and many questions left in the viewers mind. I will never look at the story of King Lear in the same way again.
I hope you enjoyed this review. Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts on the film. Did you interpret it in a different way? Will you be watching it or have I put you off?  I would love to know.
Jessica xoxo


  1. This was a great review! I'd heard about it but didn't know it was King Lear-inspired. I really want to watch it now :)
    That's so cool your name has some relation to Jessica Lange :)

    1. Thank you! I would love to hear what you think about it. I was very happy when I realised - she seems like a cool person :)

  2. Hi Jessica, I really enjoyed your review, you've got a nice style.
    I haven't seen A Thousand Acres since I watched it at the cinema when it was released, but from what I remember it's a wonderfully subtle and compassionate movie.

    Michelle Pfeiffer is one of my favourite actresses and she and Jessica Lange do a superb job of portraying the affinity and conflict between the sisters in this film.

    I think Jessica was definitely unlucky to lose out to Judi Dench (Mrs Brown) at The Golden Globes that year.
    The other nominees were:
    The Wings of the Dove: Helena Bonham Carter
    Contact: Jodie Foster
    Titanic: Kate Winslet

    One last point, it's great that your named after an actress, you have something in common with my mother who was named after Vivien Leigh.

    1. Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. I don't know very much about Michelle Pfieffer but she really stood out in this film so I will hopefully see some more of her work. Your mum sounds like a very awesome lady as well - how could you not be with a namesake like that!


Thank you for your comments - they make me smile and I promise to try and answer them all :)