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Ben Kingsley betters Gandhi!

By Arthur J Pais
December 23, 2003 14:12 IST
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A still from House Of Sand And FogDespite a deluge of smaller films vying for a place on the year end top 10 lists, and hoping for Oscar nominations, it is impossible to overlook House Of Sand And Fog. A film of startling power and compelling performances, its appeal is heightened by the performance of an artiste unknown to Americans: Shohreh Aghdashloo.

It is remarkable that Aghadashloo, who plays the wife of a proud Iranian exile, holds her own against the formidable Ben Kingsley (her husband in the movie) who, with his penetrating eyes and deeply contemplative face, gives the best performance of his two decade-old movie career. With just a glance and a whisper, he often conveys the lost pride and humiliation he has been nursing for a long time. It is no small thing to hold one's own in the presence of such a magnetic actor. Aghadashloo also shines despite the presence of another actress of serious talent, Jennifer Connelly, who is like Kingsley, an Oscar winner. 

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Director Vadim Pereleman, who makes his feature film debut here, has also destroyed the myth that music video directors go on to only make glitzy and superficial big budget films. Pereleman's film is heavier and more focused than some of the year's best work, including 21 Grams, Mystic River and Monster.

His film is brooding, dark and sad, but it is pure exhilaration you feel at the end, as you realise that a filmmaker doesn't need $150 million and a team of special effects veterans to make a heartfelt, electrifying film. Shot in English and Farsi, House Of Sand And Fog was made for about $20 million.    

Based on a novel by Andre Dubus III, it tells the story of Massoud Amir Behrani (Kingsley), who is living a lie to fulfil a long deferred dream. Once a member of the Shah of Iran's inner circle, he is struggling to have at least a middle class life in America. He hides the fact from his family that he has to work extra hard in menial jobs to keep up even a part of his façade.

When he finds a house being sold for a throwaway price because the owner hasn't paid the taxes, he immediately buys it, hoping to sell it for a profit after fixing it. He feels he has at last got a chance to make his secret desire come true and lead a better life.

But the owner Kathly Lazaro (Connelly) won't let a bureaucratic snafu take away her home. A recovering addict, she wants to get back her house, and her dignity, at any cost.

A still from House Of Sand And FogThe story takes a sharp turn or two when a married police officer (Ron Eldard), who entrusted  with her eviction, begins to sympathise with her. He wants to help her now and, predictably, he begins an affair with her.

The subplot dealing with the doomed romance could have been handled better. Here it is quite predictable and despite the good chemistry between the two actors, it still hampers the film.

Among the film's major achievement is the determination by Perelman and Kingsley not to make Massoud a stark villain. Instead, we find him a deeply flawed person like many other characters in the film.

As much as we love and admire Kingsley and Connelly, it is the aching and searing portrait of Massoud's doomed wife that will haunt us for a long time. Nadi Massoud's character is also intriguing because she cannot bring herself to dislike her man, and she also understands the impulses of the dispossessed woman.

The movie takes a few minutes to grow on the viewer, but once it does, it is nearly impossible to shake it off, despite the clumsy subplot and a bit unsatisfactory ending.

CREDITS
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Kim Dickens 
Director: Vadim Perelman
Writer: Vadim Perelman, Shawn Lawrence Otto, based on a novel by Andre Dubus III
Running time: 2 hours
Rating: R for some violence/disturbing images, language and a scene of sexuality
Distributor: DreamWorks

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Arthur J Pais