Visually rich but emotionally poor, "The House of Mirth" remains true to Wharton. 

Social Issues

In the past, England's Terence Davies has demonstrated a knack for bringing the past alive as a way to reveal the pain and treachery that often rests beneath a placid or seductively serene surface. Based on Edith Wharton's devastating exposé of the cruelty and hypocrisy of high society a century ago, Davies' "The House of Mirth" recreates the Gilded Age with all its magnificence and misery, and gives "X-Files" star Gillian Anderson an impressive role as the ill-fated Lily Bart.

Raised to believe that a woman's only goal is to land a husband, Anderson's Lily sets out to find her destiny. And simply put, the richer that husband, the better. But Lily is far too honest and intelligent not to husband-hunt without a lot of forthright irony, a guise that often hides her actual naiveté in the ways of men and women.

When we first set eyes on Lily, it is in much the same manner as one of her potential suitors. As she emerges like a wraith from a cloud of smoke at New York's train station, we watch as she runs into socialite lawyer Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). What happens next is tame by current standards, but in 1905, the idea of the two sharing a cigarette and a private chat in Selden's bachelor digs is no small matter.

The incident returns to haunt Lily, for in the moneyed Old New York circles she frequents, unwed women of modest means are vulnerable to scandal. Especially those as bold but principled as Lily, who hopes to marry well, but lacks the conniving nature required to ensnare the right man.

Though beautifully designed and shot (with Glasgow standing in for New York) with all the period bric-a-brac and attire, "The House of Mirth" is no cinematic afternoon social. Davies details the fickle brutality and exacting cost of the friends on whom Lily depends. Among them, the rich, narcissistic, double-dealing queen bee Bertha Dorset ("You Can Count On Me's" Oscar-nominated Laura Linney). We're also privy to her dealings with the wealthy and gruff Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd), who expects extramarital favors after saving Lily from a financial jam. Shocked, Lily refuses, taking her first steps toward a spiritual odyssey as harrowing as those taken by the tragic heroes of Greek lore.

Gossip and malicious mischief preoccupy most of the women in Lily's world, in which appearance and status are the coin of the realm. She may truly love Selden, but he has only enough money to live comfortably as a bachelor, and she knows this. He is her gender opposite, though as a man, of course, he's not thought the worse for indulging in affairs with married women.

Wharton's vivid and unsparing book brilliantly shows us how Lily's tumble from eligible young thing to penniless castoff is a product of both a callous, hypocritical environment and Lily's own refusal to seek a more realistic existence. As Wharton fans know, Lily could forsake the gilt and dressmakers and summers at Saratoga at any time. But instead, she chooses to continue at a game where she learns the true stakes far too late.

Davies, however, frames Lily as a victim of those evil forces of high society, a broken blossom who cannot help her situation. Nor does the film show how Lily's appetite for luxury — that all-too-pervasive and continuing "wannabe" trait in American culture — aids in her downfall.

So, "The House of Mirth" is not perfect, nor is Anderson ideally cast. But both are accomplished and ultimately affecting. She is at her best reacting to the actions of other characters, those whose dissembling and half-truths begin to erode her reputation. As her love interest, Stoltz also seems more hesitant than diffident, though his diffidence is surely what Davies was after. For were Selden a real man, a brave man, he would do all for love and hang the social consequences.

Compared to the caliber of movies heading our way during Hollywood's annual spring "pump and dump" at the box office, "The House of Mirth" is only slightly flawed and will not fail to move you. It remains a quality film that largely respects the literary classic from which it comes.


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