Oscar nominees build ‘House’

They also may think the former Royal Shakespeare Company member's screen success — not to mention that little knighting ceremony — has finally gone to his head.

But Kingsley's assessment of "House of Sand and Fog," the feature-length debut for director Vadim Perelman (also co-screenwriter), couldn't be more accurate.

Based on a book by Andrew Dubus III, "House of Sand and Fog" finds its two principle characters — retired Iranian colonel Mahmoud Behrani (Kingsley) and Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a broke housecleaner whose husband recently left her — gripped in a battle for a modest house on the California coast. Things begin to unravel further for Kathy when the county mistakenly seizes her home for a business tax she didn't owe, then sells the house at an auction before she knows what hit her.

That's where Behrani and his family enter the picture. Ousted from Iran when the shah lost power, the once-wealthy military leader has been living lavishly while working two menial jobs in an attempt to keep up appearances and get his daughter married into a respectable family.

Following the wedding Behrani happily takes his dwindling nest egg and purchases the bungalow at a greatly reduced price, all the while planning to sell it at market value and earn enough money to begin a new life for his family.

However, Kathy, desperate to get back the house she inherited from her father, finds comfort in the form of Lester (Ron Eldard), a crooked county deputy. Lester, facing his own crumbling marriage, allies with Kathy, and soon he's driving the story through his not-so-subtle persuasive tactics aimed at Behrani.

As key as Lester is to the story, his character is the least believable of the three — a noticeable fault brought about by Perelman's limited development of the character and Eldard's comparatively weak performance. Best known as Shep from television's "ER," Eldard's dialogue often seems unnatural, especially when interacting with superstars Connelly and Kingsley.

Otherwise, "House" — especially its final heart-wrenching sequence with Kingsley at the center — stands as a clinic in acting. Kingsley (Best Actor) and Shohreh Aghdashloo (Best Supporting Actress), playing Behrani's wife Nadi, both earned Oscar nominations from the Academy. Connelly and 14-year-old Jonathan Andout (as Behrani's son Esmail) also deliver strong performances.

Kingsley's presentation, though, is by far the most compelling.

The consummate actor beautifully captures the complex Behrani as an unwavering man wrestling with the tug-of-war between his dreams of success and his compassion for Kathy's dire situation. Equally lovable and despicable (Behrani beats his wife, but is motivated solely by his family), he ends up being the most sympathetic character at the conclusion of the whole sordid affair.

Though the DVD's extra features can't compete with the extraordinary twist at the end of "House" — and the movie as a whole — they should prove interesting to fans of the movie. A behind-the-scenes vignette features insightful interviews with Perelman, Dubus and all the main actors. The inclusion of deleted scenes is also intriguing, as the use of some of them in the movie would have given "House" a very different feel and changed part of the ending.

Minus the Lester/Eldard factor, Perelman's "House" had all the makings of a classic. But with an incredible cast, stirring performances and a strong story at its disposal, this will be one directorial debut that's tough to follow.

"House of Sand and Fog": AB

DVD features: B