Time after time, Sir Ben Kingsley has shown himself to be an immensely talented actor, with a range covering everything from vicious psychopath (Sexy Beast) to probably the ultimate pacifist (Gandhi). In between these extremes, he has portrayed Moses and Lenin, along with numerous Shakespearean characters, and of course there was his wonderfully empathic performance as Itzhak Stern, in Schindler’s List. His acting in House of Sand and Fog was sufficiently good to garner him another Oscar nomination. Not bad for a guy who appeared on Coronation Street in 1960.
Kingsley plays Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani, an Iranian army officer under the regime of the Shah, who was forced to flee Iran when the Ayatollah came to power. Since arriving in the USA, the Colonel has worked hard to make ends meet, working on a construction site and in a convenience store. He is determined to return his family to the standard of living they had in Iran, and when a house comes on the market at a bargain price, Behrani moves.
The house is particularly cheap, because the authorities repossessed it after its owner, Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), refused to pay her taxes. They made a mistake, but before this can be rectified, the house has been sold and Behrani and family have taken up residence. Kathy has recently separated from her husband and is a recovering addict. The house used to belong to her father and it has sentimental value. Her domineering mother is on her way to visit, expecting to see Kathy complete with husband and house.
Thus the scene is set for a power-struggle between Kathy and Colonel Behrani. The twist here is that there is no clear “good guy” or “bad guy”. Both characters have genuine claims on the house, both have come through difficult circumstances, and both eventually resort to unpleasant and underhand methods in their struggle.
Connelly had committed to House of Sand and Fog before she won an Academy Award for her role in A Beautiful Mind. Despite being inundated with offers, she kept her word and produced another excellent performance, good enough that we can almost forgive her for appearing in Hulk.
Believe it or not, both of these stars are overshadowed by the performance of Shohreh Aghdashloo. She plays the Colonel’s wife, a woman with a subservient role in a patriarchal society, and steals the show. Following this tender portrayal of someone who is torn between her own spirit and her role in that particular family, Aghdashloo has now become the first Middle-Eastern actress to be nominated for an Oscar. Appropriately enough for an Iranian finding her way around Hollywood, Shohreh Aghdashloo has a B.A. in International Relations.
House of Sand and Fog is the first film directed by Vadim Perelman, and was based on the book of the same name by Andre Dubus III. After reading the book, Perelman telephoned Dubus to make stake his claim to the film rights. “If you give your novel to any other director, they’re gonna chain your baby to the radiator, rape, and kill it”. A fairly convincing argument…
Perelman relates to the character of Behrani, having spent some of his childhood on the streets of Vienna and Rome, as a refugee from the former Soviet Union. “I cried reading the book. I knew I needed to tell the story. I’ve been one of those people – trying to find a little piece of the world you can call your own”.
Some of the cast were obvious choices for their parts. When writing the book initially, Dubus says he actually had Ben Kingsley in his mind as Behrani. In fact his wife sent a copy of the finished book to Kingsley’s wife. Shohreh Aghdashloo, like her character, actually fled Iran following the Islamic revolution in 1978. For the part of Kathy, the director says he wanted someone beautiful but broken, and looking at the finished product, who are we to question his choice of Jennifer Connelly.
Ron Eldard plays Lester Burdon, a policeman whose marriage is in trouble and who befriends Kathy. Maintaining the theme of “no clear right & wrong” in this film, Burdon is a well-meaning policeman who jumps to the wrong conclusions in his efforts to protect Kathy. The consequences are inevitably disastrous, but the less said about that, the better. No point in giving away the twists. Eldard says he enjoyed working with Perelman, who the actor says had an open and honest approach. “Hire me, don’t hire me, but just say who you are. We’ll be OK that way. That’s how he is. I totally dig it”.
We’ll leave the last and somewhat bleak words to the writer Andre Dubus III, who sees the film as a metaphor for larger conflicts: “The story is really about war. Everyone is capable of terrible acts”.