The House of Mirth
review by Dan Lybarger, 4 April 2001

In novelist Edith Wharton’s world of upper class New Yorkers, an invitation to dinner is as potentially dangerous as stepping into a pit of quicksand. The latter is actually preferable because it is quicker and painless. People who get out of line with the social order in her books are just as doomed as mobsters who flaunt the authority of a don. Wharton’s villains in many ways seem even more formidable because the psychological and economic tools they use can break a person’s spirit and resolve just as effectively as a gangster’s bullet. With this in mind, it’s no wonder wiseguy specialist Martin Scorsese adapted Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.

Unlike Scorsese, Liverpool-born writer-director Terrance Davies is better known for more sedate fare like The Neon Bible. Nonetheless, his adaptation of Wharton’s The House of Mirth is visually opulent with a strong hint of menace. Davies understands Wharton’s tricky themes. Nonetheless, he puts himself in a position as delicate as that of his heroine. He is only partially successful at making a gripping film about cold, despicable people.

Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) has a clear eye for the expectations of 1905 New York society and would like nothing to do with them. Nonetheless, she has been raised in a refined manner but doesn’t have the financial resources to keep herself afloat. At the mercy of her parsimonious aunt and a society that frowns on women working, Lily has little choice but to eventually find a suitably wealthy husband.

Understandably, she finds the task as odious as it is essential. Her heart is drawn toward the defiant Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). Selden doesn’t mind having to work for a living (as a lawyer) and is willing to sneak off with her for clandestine meetings. Still, he’s not what her benefactors would condone. She makes advances toward an amiable, but hopelessly dull fellow named Percy Gryce (Pearce Quigley) whose fortunes could settle her gambling debts. Sadly, both seem to instinctively sense the match would be phony. Matters are not helped when the seemingly proper, but completely devious Bertha Dorset (a delightfully venomous, if underutilized Laura Linney) meddles into Lily’s plans.

Lily is understandably upset by Bertha’s actions and the fact that her extramarital affairs and other affronts are tolerated. To Lily’s relief, she discovers that Bertha has not been as discreet with her offenses as thought. Lilly manages to get her hands on a series of letters where Bertha flatly admits to running into another man’s arms because she is bored with her husband. Such ammunition could help Lily restore her reputation when her finances start to shrivel and when an “investment” brokered by a less than honest stock dealer named Gus Trainer (an effective, if cartoonish Dan Ackroyd) turns out to be something more sinister. As she starts having to work a series of jobs for which she has no aptitude (including making hats), Lily refuses to make the letters public. She finds the task as revolting as it is tempting, and she has no desire to hurt the recipient of those compromising epistles, Lawrence Selden.

The often-gorgeous settings in the film are both an asset and a hindrance. Bulldozers conquered the New York described in the book a long time ago. Contemporary Glasgow proves an adequate substitute, but the production sometimes seems homogenously pretty. We have to get a stronger sense of class differences to make Lily’s decent believable. Other characters declare her lodgings squalid, but we never see anything to match the description. Davies also seems to linger on the surroundings a bit too long. There’s a long sequence in the middle where the camera pans around a room where the objects have cloths covering them, indicating the residents plan on being gone for some time. After a few seconds little more can be gained from the shots, but yet they drag on.

To be fair, Davies does coax consistently solid turns from his cast, some of whom aren’t known for period dramas. Anyone who has seen Anderson in Playing by Heart or The Mighty knows that Agent Scully on The X-Files is hardly the limit of her talents. While the quality of her performance is hardly surprising, it is still impressive and is one element that helps prevent the The House of Mirth from becoming a stiff literature lesson. Toward the end of the film, she gives Lily a firm backbone that makes her gloomy end hit home. She chastises the other performers with a firm sense of authority, and one begins to root for her even if her cause is clearly doomed. Because she has a sense of propriety that the other characters in the film can only claim to have, she elicits as much admiration as sympathy.

Thanks to Anderson, The House of Mirth comes close to capturing Wharton’s keen eye for psychological cruelty and other evils, but one still wonders if her vision is difficult, if not impossible, to capture on screen.

Written and
Directed by:

Terence Davies

Gillian Anderson Dan Aykroy Eleanor Bron Terry Kinney Anthony LaPaglia Laura Linney Elizabeth McGovern Jodhi May Eric Stoltz

PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested
Some material 
may not be 
suitable for children






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