- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

“House of Sand and Fog” begins with the question, “Is this your house?” and a middle-of-the-night apprehension that something awful has happened. The remainder of the story, depicted mostly in flashback, confirms the ill omens.

The principal characters are destined to pay severe closing costs after being placed on a collision course by Andre Dubus III, the author of the original novel, an Oprah’s Book Club best seller of 1999. The psychological costs of exile and dispossession also loom very large in “House of Sand,” faithfully transposed by screenwriter/director Vadim Perelman, a transplanted Russian whose feature debut reveals an aptitude for painful intimacy and emotional distress.

The movie’s doleful undertow is strengthened by distinctive and accomplished actors, especially Ben Kingsley in his ironically commanding portrayal of a former Iranian officer, Col. Massoud Amir Behrani — whose force of personality and hardened self-protective skills prove incapable of shielding himself, his wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and their son Esmail (Jonathan Adhout) from the unforeseen, unintended consequences of a property dispute.

The property in question is a small private home within sight of the ocean. Ostensibly located in San Mateo County, due south of San Francisco, this disarming trouble spot has been simulated deftly in a Malibu neighborhood through the craft of production designer Maia Javan and cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Trouble accumulates when the house is vacated reluctantly by its solitary occupant, a despondent and ultimately destructive young woman named Kathy Nicolo, a compelling new role for Jennifer Connelly. Evidently benumbed and demoralized by marital failure, drug addiction and self-pity, Kathy has ignored county tax payments for an extended period of time. She ends up homeless and resentful when the property is seized and then put up for auction.

The Behranis become the next tenants, to their misfortune. Forced into American exile after the downfall of the Shah of Iran, the colonel works two jobs to sustain his family in a precarious middle-class lifestyle. He plans to invest their savings in a bargain purchase of the Nicolo house, then improve it enough to justify a lucrative near-term sale.

Initially, Kathy heeds sensible advice and hires an attorney (Frances Fisher). The lack of prompt satisfaction propels Kathy in a reckless direction. She already has stirred the passion of a deputy policeman, Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), a latent powder keg of instability who decides to abandon his family to play Galahad for a beauty in distress. Lester becomes a potential agent of intimidation in Kathy’s blundering efforts to harass the Behranis. The blundering ultimately arouses their compassion, but a prospect of reconciliation is undermined by Lester’s ignorance and interference.

Miss Connelly makes Kathy’s shame feel very genuine. She seems to summarize a modern state of arrested development when confessing that her father spent 30 years paying off a home that she has managed to lose within a matter of months.

The Behranis are in no way the cause of Kathy’s weakness and failure, but they are proud and insular in ways that cloud their ability to anticipate certain kinds of trouble in an adopted country — or to take timely defensive measures.

Mr. Kingsley and Miss Aghdashloo, a starlet of the Iranian cinema in her youth, are sharply contrasted conjugal castaways, embodying the pathos of masculine strength and feminine delicacy. This aspiring and imperiled little Iranian exile family — the first to figure prominently in a Hollywood film — probably will make a lasting impression on moviegoers.

**1/2

TITLE: “House of Sand and Fog”*

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Vadim Perelman. Screenplay by Mr. Perelman and Shawn Lawrence Otto, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Production design by Maia Javan.

RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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