Through Two Peepers in Tune with the Times


A Review by Stephen Holden

Terence Davies's starched, funereally gloomy screen adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel "The House of Mirth" arrives at a timely moment in New York City's social history. The post-Victorian Fifth Avenue milieu in which Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), the heroine of Wharton's great, sad novel, is ruthlessly torn apart by the jackals of high society obliquely anticipates today's post- feminist climate of "Sex and the City," prenuptial agreements and trophy wives. Money rules, and anyone who doesn't catch on to that fact is a fool who deserves to learn the hard way. However amorous a high- powered match might be, there is also likely to be a business arrangement lurking under the bed covers.

The English director's vision of New York City in 1905 is infinitely bleaker and more sterile, of course, than the glittering Versace and Gucci-clad present. The characters are too constricted by a punishing puritanical code of behavior to have much fun; hardly a smile is cracked throughout the film's glum 140 minutes. The stone and marble mansions through which Wharton's socialites march like expressionless automatons have all the allure of shadowy mausoleums. Conversations tend to be stilted and punctuated with uncomfortable silences.

As for period glamour, the doyennes of this society may wear the same accouterments as the great ladies in Sargent paintings, but they exude little of their magnetism and mystery. Even less impressive are the male catches these women pursue so craftily. These dynamos of business and finance tend to be at best dull and priggish, at worst lecherous boors. But if "The House of Mirth" is dour to the degree that it fails to convey the attractions of Gotham's good life in 1905 (Martin Scorsese's screen version of "The Age of Innocence" did a much better job of evoking a warm tribal solidarity and comfort), the story is still so gripping it almost doesn't matter how it's couched.

In fact, the film's austerity underscores Wharton's anger and disgust at the hypocrisy, cruelty and greed of the upper crust of her time. "The House of Mirth" is, after all, Wharton's sustained howl of rage at a world where women are overwhelmingly dependent on men for their livelihoods and in which one malicious whisper can destroy a reputation. Lily is a victim, an old-fashioned sacrificial heroine undone in part by her own high principles, when she refuses to stoop to the blackmailing employed by her foes.

The movie's most glaring failure is its casting of Gillian Anderson as Lily. Ms. Anderson isn't so much bad as wrong for the part. The big-boned redheaded actress certainly has screen charisma. But she projects none of the innate refinement necessary for Lily, who should mirror her name by embodying a rarefied mixture of delicacy, beauty and vivacious wit. In one crowd scene the director dresses her in bright red in contrast with everyone else's grays, blacks and muted greens. It's a cheap effect, because Lily is not a scarlet woman (or even a rebel) in her own mind, and even those who tarnish her reputation know it. In Lily's scenes with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), the lawyer who would be her ideal husband were it not for his relative impecuniousness, Ms. Anderson comports herself with horsy flirtatiousness that is uncomfortable to watch. Mr. Stoltz, for his part, is dismayingly blank. Not until the end, when Selden realizes what he has lost, does the actor betray any flickerings of his character's inner life. Granted, it wouldn't be easy given Selden's evasive manner. But Daniel Day Lewis's quietly smoldering Newland Archer in "The Age of Innocence" showed it could be done.

With the exception of Laura Linney's chillingly spidery Bertha Dorset (the unfaithful wife who plots Lily's destruction), the other performances are surprisingly one-dimensional. Dan Aykroyd's Gus Trenor, a married man who pounces on Lily after duplicitously trying to buy her favors, is little more than a red-eyed lunging pig. Anthony LaPaglia, as Sim Rosedale, a financier and outsider who is cannily buying his way up the social ladder, comes the closest to breaking through a buttoned-up caricature. The most cartoonish performance is Eleanor Bron's as Lily's aunt, a woman so severe she makes the Wicked Witch of the West seem warm and cuddly.

A word that might best describe Mr. Davies's interpretation of Wharton's cruel novel of manners is Dickensian. Certainly, Dickens was a profound underlying inspiration behind Mr. Davies's two best films, the haunting autobiographical montages "Distant Voices. Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes." Both films are deeply personal childhood reveries in which scarier adults, as in Dickens's novels, have the vividness of nightmare apparitions. But if the styles of Dickens and Wharton don't align in terms of character portrayal, they do in their storytelling.

Almost in spite of itself, "The House of Mirth" is powerful, at times even moving. The story of Lily's expulsion from the inner circle and her descent through failed jobs into abject poverty is a relentlessly tragic tale of bad luck, cruelty and missed opportunity. Although set nearly a hundred years ago, it still sends a chill of recognition and dread. It's a worst possible scenario of bad things happening to a good person.


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