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Months of Meryl: The House of the Spirits (1993)

John and Matthew are watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep. 

#20 —
Clara del Valle Trueba, paranormal matriarch of a prosperous South American family.

JOHN: Yes, paranormal. But please, take your expectations about Meryl Streep as psychic (and Glenn Close as her scorned, sexually repressed sister-in-law) that may be levitating midair and place them firmly on the ground. Actually, go ahead and place them below the Earth’s surface, and then you might be ready to endure one of the absolute worst films Streep has ever been caught in. The House of the Spirits, an adaptation of Isabel Allende’s titular novel, chronicles the tumultuous history of the Trueba family, a prosperous South American dynasty headed by Esteban Trueba (Jeremy Irons), a peasant turned plantation owner turned conservative senator, who marries Clara del Valle (Streep), the youngest daughter of a wealthy, liberal family, and did I mention that she can move things with her mind and predict the future?

While the exact South American country is never explicitly mentioned in either the novel nor film, Allende is herself Chilean and the political upheavals she recounts closely parallel those of Chile. Egregious casting of British and North American actors is almost the least of this film’s problems as The House of the Spirits quickly becomes a step-by-step guide to horribly adapting a treasured novel, dulling and deflating all traces of Allende’s elegance, insight, or political import. By the time Clara dies, I spent the last half hour daydreaming about all the novels I could (and should) have used that time to read, Allende’s especially.

Streep, unfortunately, is Clara, a telekinetic clairvoyant with neither Carrie White’s range nor Raven-Symoné’s personality. After failing to stop the death of her sister as a young girl, Clara goes mute for years, a spell that finally ceases when she blurts out an ecstatic “Yes!” to Esteban’s marriage proposal. (Girl, you can see the future, but can you see the oaf right in front of your eyes?) Clara is a character stuck in the symbolic, intended to represent otherworldly love and timeworn wisdom, but Streep never brings this woman to life, barely registering at all as a character with distinctive traits. The extent of Clara’s telekinetic abilities are contained in just a few laughable vignettes, like when, after her marriage to Esteban, she levitates a table in their honeymoon suite, and he barks at her to “Put that table down!” Her psychic powers are conveniently deployed when the plot’s engine needs some juicing and are almost forgotten thereafter. Elaborately clad in white, full of ponderous glances, silenced by Esteban and seemingly unacknowledged by the rest of her family, Clara is ultimately an elusive figure, unilluminated by Streep’s uncharacteristically dull and wooden performance. Is there really any other way to spin this bombastic film and lifeless performance? What on Earth could have drawn Streep to this utter wisp of a part?

Reunited with her French Lieutenant's Woman co-star


MATTHEW: The draw surely must have been director-adapter Bille August, whose Pelle the Conqueror won the foreign-language Oscar in 1987 and whose Bergman heritage picture The Best Intentions (scripted by Bergman himself) won Pernilla August an acting prize at Cannes the year before this project. But House of the Spirits is ultimately the kind of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad movie whose sheer awfulness sours the mood of anyone masochistic enough to endure this inexplicably whitewashed tale of Latin American empires. Where do I even begin? There’s the ensemble, each member about twenty years too old for his or her role in the film’s early stages and in turn aping at youth and vandalizing their carefully-crafted screen personas in the process. There’s the unspeakably and singularly atrocious lead performance by Irons, who is laughably aged-down (and rendered “Latino”) with a prosthetic nose and false teeth that are egregious offenses unto themselves. There’s Close, wearing colored contacts and doing a poor man’s Mrs. Danvers in a scenery-hungry turn that seems aimed at a Best Supporting Actress Oscar but deserves nothing more than a freshly-polished Razzie. There’s Winona Ryder playing the only progeny of Irons and Streep and providing the film with a stodgy, running narration that makes the actress sound like a bored AP English student reading aloud in class from a novel she only knows through Sparknotes.

August’s larger casting decision is a disgrace that would have probably buried his career had this film been made in the Twitter age. That being said, Streep’s casting makes some sense: Clara is, after all, a woman of amazing powers that are highly coveted but also unmistakably set her apart. The character has no profundity to speak of, but Streep doesn’t embarrass herself like Close or Irons because her playing, even in the piece’s most hideously melodramatic passages, retains a level of unshowy modesty, as if receding from the narrative might somehow simultaneously distance herself from this bastardized project altogether.

Streep’s knack for emotional transparency within particularized personas doesn’t necessarily fail her here because it’s not really solicited in the first place. August only needs Streep for her gauzy beauty in the early passages and then her somber, weeping nobility in the film’s halting latter half before finally calling upon her to embody a soothingly angelic apparition in her final scenes.

There’s nothing worth savoring much less saving in this performance, but the sincerity of Streep’s approach continually asks us to take these fragmented scenes seriously, but it’s a mostly futile request. If I’m being generous, there are a few instances in which Streep rises above the rubbish, if only for a nanosecond, like the moment in which August lingers on Streep’s transmogrifying face as Clara receives a message from The Beyond, a shot that holds our interest if only for its relative slowness, a rarity within this rushed and risible case study of how not to adapt a novel for the big screen. Streep also fares well in a reassuring mother-daughter bedroom conversation with Ryder, but everything the actress does here has already been achieved by her with more certainty and credibility on prior occasions. She distills the character into blanched displays of maternal concern and sage dotage, neither of which resonate in or after the moment. Streep can’t salvage anything in this ambitious but abominable production that simply doesn’t deserve Streep, whose unfailing conviction is so awkwardly applied in this wisp of a role. Why do you think Streep came onboard this sinking vessel? And do you find it symptomatic of what some might categorize as Streep’s arguably career-long problem of proper role-picking?

JOHN: I too must confess that I simply stopped caring about what was happening on screen after its mediocrity became so overwhelming, and perhaps Streep doesn’t deserve our utter indifference. When she appeared on screen, my ears at least perked up a bit, but there is nothing especially revelatory about Streep’s abilities in The House of the Spirits, nothing that she hasn’t done before and better. My “favorite” moment from her performance is undoubtedly her shutdown of Esteban at the dinner table, but even this feels more like a sporadic, wish-fulfilled outburst, an abrupt detour from Clara’s otherwise tranquil and unassuming demeanor. On paper, The House of the Spirits and Clara might seem like good ideas, but, in actuality, only result in a vague performance and an incompetent, bloated film.

“Better on paper” is a rather apt descriptor of many a Streep project, as it describes both the sounds-promising-but-turns-out-bad quality of many of the actress’ films, their often literary origins, and the pedigree of either director or role that fails to kindle when the camera starts rolling. Many such failures point to the inherently difficult task of adapting novels into films; an act of translating literary grammar to rich visual and aural experiences, preserving the characterizations and points of view of great literature while also utilizing the possibilities of cinema. I ultimately wish Streep made better choices about which adaptations she pursued, perhaps privileging the artistic vision of the director and creative team instead of the relevance or importance of the source material itself.

How about you, reader? Have you seen The House of the Spirits

Previously on Months of Meryl


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Reader Comments (38)

Oh, this movie. Last year, in my very last college Spanish class I had to take so I could graduate with a Spanish major, we read The House of the Spirits and watched this movie. I spent much of it in an agony of secondhand embarrassment, because it was just so bad. It was a little bit like Goya's Ghosts (a movie in which Natalie Portman is raped and tortured by Javier Bardem), but while Goya's Ghosts was offensive in its awfulness, and I couldn't scrape a moment of enjoyment out of it, The House of the Spirits occasionally crossed into "so bad it's good" territory, for me (when, bored one December evening, I watched it again). It was like watching a trashy novela. Good on you guys for powering through it.

May 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSophia Barsuhn

Yes- a blantant misfire but I do agree that Streep sort of hangs on the outskirts of the mess.
That being said- love that she is working with Redgrave and Close and Streep’s own daughter plays Clara. But a movie I do not view very often and I agree once Streep no longer on the screen my attention wanes.

Nathaniel- would love to hear your thoughts on Streep/Oldman/Banderas movie The Laundromat filming Fall 2018??

May 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I haven't seen this movie in about ten years, but I remember Glenn Close being very good in it. This was the only movie she and Meryl did together. It seems a shame. They should collaborate on another hopefully better film.

May 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom G.

Antonio Banderas is, in fact, white European.

May 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

I thought Glenn Close was the sole redemption of this misguided film adaptation of Isabel Allende's magical realism drama. She remained the one true thing for me especially the confession scene and her monologues. I thought she was truly Ferula the way Allende described her in the book, while all the others were playing dress up and trying new accents to sound authentic. Even as a misfire, I have to admire everyone for their commitment to their roles. Then there's also a luminous turn from Maria Conchita Alonso as Tránsito.

Close and Streep actually appeared in a film adaptation of Susan Minot's novel Evening in 2007 (also with Vanessa Redgrave, Toni Collette, Natasha Richardson, Claire Danes, Eileen Atkins) but they didn't share a scene together. Both actresses appeared in different time periods of the story. In that film, it was Hugh Dancy who was all four aces with his heartbreaking turn as Buddy Wittenborn. Yes, it would be great to see Streep and Close together again in a movie. Many years ago I thought they were working on a Mary Queen of Scots-Queen Elizabeth film, but I must have imagined it. Can't they remake The Little Foxes for this two?

May 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

Yeah, this was a bad movie. To think the caliber of talent in that film with a widely-loved book and the result is a fucking misfire. Meryl was so miscast in the role which could've gone to a younger actress. The whitewashing made it really bad as well as the way it used the coup d'etat of 1973 (that was supported by the U.S.).

May 17, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Antonio Banderas is, in fact, white European.

America does not recognize him as a white person. Hispanic always defaults to having a Latin connotation in the states.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I remember Isabel Allende's noval was a fun read that I was very happy when they announced the movie version with Meryl and Glenn which I was so relieved would be working together at long last because up to that point I'd thought (for some reason) they might not fond of each other in real life. But it turned out to be a bad movie with ugly cinematography. Glenn was the only one who managed to survive while Meryl was miscast big time and looked too old right from beginning. I had high hope with the director Bille August after Pelle the Conqueror but he really did a bad job with this. They went with inauthentic big hollywood cast and I think that the main reason for the failure of this project (which I realized after I saw it). It was the first Meryl movie that I feel truely disappointed and wish she didn't get involved.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJack for Streep

Owl – No, you didn't imagine it. Close and Streep were announced to be in a 'Queen's' movie, but Streep backed out. Close did an interview in her home at the time in (I think) upper NY state or Vermont (it's extremely hard to find) before filming Damages. She was gearing up for her 3rd marriage at the time, and the remake of Sunset Blvd. was being tossed around with different actresses attached to it at different times. It was a great interview. She stated she was disappointed the project never resolved and seemed to very slightly indicate Streep didn't follow through on securing the project with her. I can't remember exactly, but I believe those two were 'friends' until that project fell through.

Close recently said in an interview while promoting Crooked House that although the two women have great respect for each other, 'Streep is not her friend' per se. I was surprised when I read that. Streep has said they are friends, but apparently Close is more blunt about it.

As for the House of the Spirits, it was a bore, especially after Close left. She was the best part of it. She may be White, but she always fills a role as best she can, even if she can be a bit histrionic at times. Streep, to me, tends to play more wispy characters that can be somewhat maudlin. A lot of people love that I guess. I certainly have enjoyed watching Streep over time in some films, especially when delivering more comedic material.

Sorry for the long post!

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMike

One of the worst novel adaptation ever but the most surprising thing for me is that actually several years ago I met somebody who actually appreciated this movie. I couldn't help to express my surprise and he stated that I was a cinephile (perhaps it's true but I didn't think it mattered in that particular occasion) and that's why I was so harsh with THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS...

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

I love this series which is usually written with so much care and love, but I would like to comment on a topic that really annoyed me about this post. I am constantly surprised by the level of racial/ethnic ignorance of US Americans, even liberal ones.

As others have commented already. Antonio Banderas is a Spanish actor. That is, from the European country of Spain, and he is ethnically white.
As for the rest of the actors, their race is not the problem here, only that they lack the cultural nuisance to make their characters believable. Latin American population is made up of a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds: Native American groups, white Europeans, Africans and Asians (Peru had a president of Japanese background!!!). For example, I am a white Venezuelan from a Spanish family. We Latin Americans as a cultural group are not the stereotypical image shown in Fox News. These characters, especially the affluent landowners and politicians, most probably would have been from a white European origin.
There are many reasons to criticize this movie for, but whitewashing I don’t think is one of them. It shows how a very important and relevant issue like racism (or any other form of discrimination) can be trivialized/misconstructed/exploited by the media even when it’s done for the right reasons.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFernando

This marks such a strange time period for Streep and the classic "actress in her 40s that hollywood is losing interest in." I have to imagine the parts she was getting just weren't that interesting.

Other than "Bridges" and maybe the fun of "The River Wild," Streep had a lot of blah-roles until the Adaptation, Angels, and Devil. I'm excited to read more about your thoughts on her films in the 90s, especially since I think they're real examples of how limited options were for women at the time (I mean, Glenn was doing broadway and disney films to get good roles!).

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoe


Race in America is very crude and reductive. Because race is a man-made construct the relativism at its disposal continues to leave some of our non-American readers confused that their "whiteness" is completely invalid stateside when you have a Spanish name, accent, and speak Spanish socially and not for business purposes for employment. Continue arguing for whiteness in a country that won't give it to you.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Fernando - HELL YEAH. They think in South America everybody is black or indian. Racial ignorance disguised as social rightness.

I sense some kind of xenophobia in this column, now and then.

First Hector Babenco, then Bille August - very talented directors from, respectively, Europe and South America - are treated like trash. The authors seem to think they`re God.

Maybe The House of the Spirits is not a good film, but it is WAY BETTER and more relevant than She-Devil or Death Becomes Here. Especially for us who born in Chile or South America, places almost never seen or shown in the screen. But, again, you don`t really care about us, right?

Also Glenn Close is the best part of the movie.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMercedes

I remember when Glenn Close won her first, long overdue Golden Globe (for that bad Lion in Winter remake) and her first words were, "Meryl, is it okay?" Seems a bit insincere and passive aggressive when you watch it.

Glenn should have won for Fatal Attraction or Dangerous Liaisons (I'd be fine with either or both) but her career decline post-80s seems self- or agent-inflicted to me. She did so much godawful television in the 90s. And that was a high point for grown-up middlebrow can picture her in something like Frankie and Johnny, The Client, One True Thing, Dolores Claiborne, Dead Man Walking, Marvin's Room...the roles were out there, even if she wasn't at the top of the list.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

Glenn Close looks ridiculous in this movie. She looks like a caricature instead of a real person. If they weren't going to cast an actual South American actress, they could at least have cast a brown-eyed brunette in the role.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I've never seen this movie but I have read at least ten Allende novels. I don't think this is a very good one but I realize it was her first big "hit." But I do want to say that all through the book I thought the family was a white European one. All the women had white blonde hair and had names like Clara and Blanca, reinforcing that. So for me, honestly, that is the least of the problems. I imagine the attempt to "play" South American and using competing accents makes it worse.

I read the reviews at the time, and saw the trailers, and decided it just wasn't worth the ten bucks (well, probably five at the time).

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

2 issues:

@3rttful Is everything you are interested in about race and awards?? I've only been reading these blogs for the las couple of weeks and you do go onnnnnnn....

Also, about this blog ... ,IMO this was not only the worst Streep performance ( and I love her as actress and person ) I have ever seen, but the worst major movie I have ever seen.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

What I remember about this film: Time magazine (?) did a promotion early on once casting was announced that the role of Clara could be a "comeback" film for Streep after the disappointing She-Devil, etc. Upon release, it was considered a strange misfire due to the Anglo casting of Latin roles. The New Yorker (?) said that everyone, except for Glenn Close, gave the worst performance of their career. The movie actually made a lot of movie in foreign markets. Thank God everyone - more or less - recovered.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford


Your arrogance and poor sensibility when talking about issues such as race and geopolitics is exactly the root of the problem we, South Americans, have with the colonizing countries. You may not realize it yet, but, by minimizing the perceptions of those who suffer prejudice and xenophobia on the skin, you only reinforce the stereotype of the blind, deaf and mute imperialist, who will tell us what to think and feel.

Speak in that tone with some South American once and you will never have the opportunity to speak again, because everyone of us will turn against you so fast that your head will spin.

Believe us when we talk about race. We know what we're talking about.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMercedes


I'm a Black gay man from America. White supremacy stateside says your whiteness is irrelevant here. You might as well declare yourself Mexican when you vacation here. Because American whites have a way of disqualifying whiteness either on sight or when you speak with an accent they don't deem white. And if you have a Spanish name again, it won't matter if you look like Jennifer Lawrence, you'll never be fully embraced as one of their own.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

This film isn't half as bad as its critics make out. It's a four-generation family saga, so it was always going to be long and slow, probably better suited to television. Irons's performance is all one-note anger, which leaves him nowhere to go when the drama really kicks in. Close, Streep, Gummer and Redgrave provide the colour and light. The criticism of the key cast's ages is unfounded - they were all the right age to play characters from their twenties to their sixties, but I've picked up a distinct inability in these critics to allow their belief to be suspended, which makes them perfect critics I suppose. Yet they're not above the odd bad performance themselves, especially rich in viewers who expect perfection. It's Bille August, not Billie, and I recall the "whitewashing" question being answered at the time of this film's release. Googling a few contemporary reviews would have provided the gravitas that's missing, but John and Matthew seem to be publishing without fact checking. A Cry in the Dark was portrayed in this column as a New Zealand film, not Australian. Perhaps in the US there is no distinction? If so, these two were always going to be incapable of discerning South American ethnicity. The 'tsk tsk' quality of this column ('naughty Streep ruining herself in literary adaptations') seems the only trick left in the grab bag. Hopefully these boys can turn things around as fast as Meryl regularly does.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Burge


Friend, what they think in the US is exclusively an US issue. People don't define themselves based on the US point of view. The world does not round around your country, you know that, right? Kisses

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMercedes

Let's face it... This column was a mistake.

Apart for the fandom, the authors don't have a clue about what they're talking about. They are quick to judge, slow to show the minimum respect/generosity towards cinema.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnna C.

I Love this site but this article is awful and ignorant.

That family, in that moment, in that social position, would be white-european. It Just shows that you dont understand a thing about Race, class and social standings in Latam.

There are many, many, many People of white-european origin all over Latin América.

Latin America ia extemely diverse. Your stereotypical narrow view is Just plain wrong.

There are countless women in Brasil, Argentina, Uruguay and yes, Chile, with Winona Ryder's Ivory skin, dark hair and Brown eyes.

You people have no clue what you are talking about.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

And yes, there are quite many latin americans with Green and BLUE eyes, as well as middle-easterns, jews, blacks, native-americans and the biggest japanese colony outside of Japan- in Brasil.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

"I'm a Black gay man from America." WTF does this have to do with The House of the Spirits? You are an insane narcissist - no matter the topic, you make every single post about yourself and your experience. Who the hell are you to lecture or call out Hispanics? You are tiresome.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterViola Davis

Calm your pussy down guys. It's just a mediocre movie.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSTFU

Maybe they want that to be the fake history of the world. It definitely makes minorities fight. And why is someone's identity tied to someone who won an Oscar? And I mean Viola's number one fan of ... Herself.

@Mercedes you are TOTALLY CORRECT in bringing /3rtful down. He is constantly grandstading about race. He writes in such exuberant wording that most readers do not even probably know what he is babbling about.

I am a college prof and I would totally dismiss any paper he turned in to me.

I hope a certain person who attacked me on a previous post reads this.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

P.S. I f all this blog site does is talk race , etc. I wiii seek another site. I am very interested in movies and want to learn all I can.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Jesus, what happened to this comment section? Let's focus on the topic like what's taught in grade school. A little maturity goes a long way as well.

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMike

A hint of Hispanic will bring out prejudice in a lot of Americans despite being classed as White, that is true, and would be disingenuous not to acknowledge. Am not sure if that means they don’t get the label of white, albeit with less of the ingrained privileges they would be afforded in different countries.

May 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBen

RDF -- always happy to welcome newcomers. I run the site (though I don't write this particular series). The comment section does get heated every once in a while -- particularly in regards to race but people are on hair triggers these days everywhere about that particular topic I assume largely because of the past election which threw into bold relief how many problems the US has in this regard. And, as we've discovered many times over the past couple of years especially people outside the US have extremely different viewpoints on these same topics.

I assure you the blog posts themselves are almost always about the movies :) so please come back and hope you're enjoying the articles.

Everyone -- please try and treat each other kindly and with respect (and part of that is allowing that people have different points of view often from having grown up in entirely different contexts depending on race, region, religion, nationality, levels of education, class, parental influenece, whatever). That is all I ask and I hate to have to ask it so frequently. The one thing that unites us all here is love of movies so it's safest when we stick to that.

May 19, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thank you Nathaniel. I really enjoy this site and it seems to me
only one blogger has such bad taste.

I definitely will continue coming to this site and do what everyone

else does Ignore him!!!!!

May 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRdf

Thank you Nathaniel. I love the series.

May 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

This was one of the first movies with Meryl Streep for me. And I was in love with Winona Ryder during her big star moment. But yes the movie is really bad. Glenn Close is the only one delivering the goods.

Hopefully a remake will latin american actors is on the horizon. Hopefully!

May 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

Thanks for this ! Scream - I nearly wanted to buy the DVD !! But I vaguely remember hideous colours and airy hair flattering in the wind - like a Barbra Cartland gone wrong.. experience

June 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMartin

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