A THOUSAND ACRES (1997)

(a “nonsoapy, nonsudsy” film review by Timothy J. Verret)

Please don’t expect me to write a film review of A THOUSAND ACRES where I call it, as many critics do, a “soapy and sudsy Lifetime movie.” This film is “nonsoapy and nonsudsy” if only alone for fantastic performances, especially by the incomparable Jessica Lange. It’s always a joy to have the opportunity to talk about the acting of Ms. Lange and how she is my all-time favorite actress in a sea of many, many favorite actresses of mine.

A THOUSAND ACRES is based off of Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, tagged as “King Lear on a farm.” For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s KING LEAR, it is the story of a king who divides his kingdom amongst his two daughters with the third getting nothing, for she will not flatter the king. Smiley takes this same story and puts it on a farm, with the patriarchal figure doing the same thing with his kingdom, i.e., a thousand-acre farm, and his three daughters encountering the same, though the third daughter does not want out of inheriting the farm for not flattering the king, i.e., her father, but rather because she is a lawyer and thinks her father may be losing his wits about him.

The two daughters wanting their hands on the farm are Rose and Ginny Cook, with the third daughter, Caroline Cook, wanting no hands in this. Rose and Ginny are extremely close, probably because they stayed on the farm long after their childhood, with Caroline trading the picturesque and quiet landscape of a country life for a successful and driven city life. And not to give too much away, Rose and Ginny also share a deep-wounded secret, one that either did not personally affect Caroline or Caroline has simply not come (yet?) to remember. This secret shatters Ginny, who gradually remembers it after Rose reveals it, and it sets Ginny on a path of self-discovery and an eventual desperate need to leave behind a thousand acres for good, leaving her husband and only asking from him a thousand dollars, a dollar an acre.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Rose Cook and Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Caroline Cook, and they give commendable performances. Jessica Lange plays Ginny Cook, and she not only gives a commendable performance but also a performance that is as rare as a dripped-in-blood diamond, i.e., Ms. Lange takes her Ginny’s complete 180 through all the peaks and valleys of a life-changing journey and honestly embodies in more than one way every possible emotion a character could ever experience in a nearly 2-hour film. Ms. Lange’s performance in A THOUSAND ACRES is one of the greatest female performances I have ever seen and really solidifies Ms. Lange as the finest, if not the best (in my opinion), actress this world has ever known.

As mentioned, critics can call A THOUSAND ACRES a “soapy and sudsy” film, but Jessica Lange’s performance has not one soapy or sudsy moment to it captured on film. It is an emotional A-Z performance and, thus, a masterclass in acting. It’s funny I’m writing about this because I had therapy today and told my therapist that one of the things I love most about Jessica’s acting is that when she experiences a very deep emotional reaction to a situation, she will often touch herself. I called it an “am I still real?” gesture, while my therapist called it a grounding technique. Now I can see that it is both. Jessica uses her entire body to relay to us what she is feeling. She will hold her head in her hands when she is overwhelmed with sadness, do a kind of “tapping” gesture when she is uncertain or confused, and her eyes will always well up with tears when she is conveying how the moment captured on film has truly reached her deep in her character’s heart and soul. This should be how all acting is accomplished, and maybe it is for some, but Jessica has the market cornered when it comes to “emotional acting.”

Once again, “soapy and sudsy” is A THOUSAND ACRES? Nope. It’s very real and it’s very deep and it’s very well-acted and has such a beautifully haunting narration by Ms. Lange. If there is any semblance of “soapy and sudsy” to this film, it’s the “clean feeling” we experience watching Jessica’s Ginny “clean” herself from a life as “ninny, a simpleton” (the character’s words to her husband) to a character courageous in personal growth and redefining in a life that no longer could define her on a thousand acres.

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