House of Sand and Fog Review

Based on a novel by Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog is a compelling dramatic tragedy focused on two characters: the recently-divorced Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) and the recently-retired Iranian colonel, Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley). The story begins with Kathy being evicted from her San Francisco home, a property that boasts a beautiful sea view and triggers many happy memories for the woman whose husband left her eight months previously. Meanwhile, Iranian colonel Behrani watches his daughter marry into a respectable family before deciding to flee Iran and find a new home in America. His wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout) follow him to San Francisco, where he buys Kathy's seized house for a discount price from the county. Kathy maintains that the reason she was evicted – unpaid business tax – is illegal because she's never owned a business; a power struggle follows between Kathy and Behrani as lines are crossed and tragedy arises.

Dubus' father, also named Andre, was also a successful author. His story Killings inspired Todd Field's phenomenal film In the Bedroom; House of Sand and Fog is similar in many ways to his father's tale of grief and tragedy. Adapted by writer/director Vadim Perelman, who had previously seen success with a string of television commercials, the screenplay to House of Sand and Fog is very faithful to Dubus' source novel – including the casting choice of Ben Kingsley as Behrani, an actor who was actually the inspiration for the character in the first place.

The drama that unravels during the film's two-hour running time is actually captivating – a tense battle between two very stubborn individuals that soon descends into murkier water. Connelly and Kingsley, the two stars of the film, really do revel in their roles and both deliver fantastic performances. Although Connelly seems to be content portraying sullen and damaged women in most of her films, Kingsley's diversity is a joy to behold and I was completely convinced that he really was an ex-Iranian colonel: the Oscar nomination he received was a just reward. Special mention must also go to Aghdashloo and Ahdout – both actors complete the Behrani family dynamic perfectly. Considering Ahdout had no previous acting experience, his performance is a revelation and he manages to effortlessly create a believable and honourable teenage son.

Perelman's direction is assured and, at times, beautiful. This might be his feature film debut, but his vision is crystal-clear throughout; he also adds-in several absolutely stunning shots of San Francisco, captured through a unique viewpoint (credit must also go to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose work has resulted in some exquisitely-photographed films). Perelman is clearly a very talented helmer, an artist who can draw the viewer in and then allow them breathing space to form their own opinions of the characters and situations that evolve from the bricks and mortar. Take for example the character of Lester (played excellently by Ron Eldard), a police officer who is there to evict Kathy and then begins a relationship with her – he is flawed, yet deep down an endearing and vulnerable person who is fighting to protect Kathy. Over the course of the film, Perelman offers no definitive opinion about the character, instead allowing Lester – and indeed the other characters – time to ferment and develop in the viewer's mind.

Ben Kingsley likened House of Sand and Fog to a Shakespearian tragedy, and that claim is indeed correct. It's incredibly rich – due to Dubus' excellent novel – whilst also managing to be powerful and provocative. In a year that offered a copious amount of commercial pap, this film strays from the rest of the pack and is designed to be viewed by intelligent and more mature audiences. As Perelman himself says, he hopes that House of Sand and Fog will make everyone stop and think after watching it: connect in some way with every viewer. In that way, he has most definitely succeeded.

The Disc
Available on R1 DVD since March, the film has certainly taken its time to cross the Atlantic.

The menus sum up the film perfectly: wispy clouds of fog envelop San Francisco's bay. They are very easy to navigate.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is excellent without being reference quality. Slight compression signs and traces of aliasing are visible, but overall the colour balance, crispness of the image and vibrancy are good enough to make this a very good picture.

Only one soundtrack is included, which is a crisp and clear Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The dialogue is presented clearly through the front channels, and although there is a relative lack of surround action, this is a dialogue-driven film after all. I did also notice the occasional use of the LFE channel to good effect.

The extras might not be high in quantity, but they sure are high in quality: beginning with an audio commentary featuring writer/director Vadim Perelman, he enthusiastically talks about his film and offers a lot of insight.

Perelman also commentates alongside Ben Kingsley during the five deleted scenes that are included – they are enjoyable to watch but offer little extra value to the already-accomplished film. A 'Play All' function is pleasingly on offer.

There is a short behind-the-scenes featurette that includes interviews with all the main players – Andre Dubus III, Perelman, Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard and the film's producers. Aside from the occasional back-slapping, all too common with DVD extras these days, it's a very entertaining and informative featurette.

Rounding off the package is Shohreh Aghdashloo's audition tape, which wowed the executives at DreamWorks, as well as an animated photo gallery.

House of Sand and Fog is one of the best dramatic tragedies that I've seen since In the Bedroom in 2001; a moving and provocative look into the abyss, featuring superb performances and direction. The DVD is definitely worth purchasing: it features very good technical presentation with a decent smattering of extras – a slightly longer making-of featurette would have been better, though.

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