Davies's drafty House of Mirth
by Scott Heller
The British director Terence Davies had never seen The X-Files when he
made the unlikely decision to cast Gillian Anderson in The House of
Mirth. All he knew of the actress was a single still photograph.
Flame-haired and rosebud-lipped, Anderson has always hinted at greater depths
than she can reveal as the show's tightly wound FBI agent Scully. To Davies,
she was a living John Singer Sargent portrait. But for fans of Edith Wharton's
extraordinary 1905 novel, the naturally recessive Anderson is hardly the first
actress you'd think of to play Lily Bart, a woman of carefully cultivated
beauty -- like some rare flower grown for exhibition.
The House of Mirth mercilessly details what happens when this orchid
begins to lose her bloom. In the sad, sympathetic tale of Lily Bart, a woman
nearing 30 who watches her chances to marry a wealthy man evaporate, one by
one, Wharton casts a cold eye on an entire social world. In Gilded Age New
York, the whirl of dinner parties and country-house invitations barely conceals
a brutal Darwinian ethos. Either you're accepted or you're shunned. There is no
A woman without independent means, Lily elegantly walks a social tightrope,
depending on the kindness of a rich aunt (Eleanor Bron) and favors bestowed by
prosperous men like Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), a gauche if eligible
bachelor, and Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd), a lecherous married man. Her heart lies
with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), but he's not rich enough to wed. Still, the
natural ease Lawrence and Lily share stirs up enmity in her not-so-angelic
cousin, Grace Stepney (Jodhi May), and in the viperish and unhappily married
Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney).
Davies's autobiographical films, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The
Long Day Closes, have a small but fervent following. Cheery pop music
provides ironic counterpoint, and even a bit of relief, to those trapped in the
bleak working-class Liverpool depicted within. No such relief is offered in
The House of Mirth, a largely faithful adaptation that manages to be
even icier than Wharton's novel. Shot in dark, mausoleum-worthy tones, Davies's
film robs the moneyed leisure class of their most cherished weapon: the
capacity for pleasure. Drawing-room exchanges that are barbed and witty on the
page feel as airless as a Victorian bedchamber with the windows tightly shut.
Even a night at the opera, as Lily and company slowly ascend a grand staircase,
is more a night of the living dead.
The effect reaches all the way to Lily herself. Vain and petty, yet also highly
principled, she is one of the most intriguing heroines in all of American
literature. As the film progresses and Lily runs out of options, Anderson
delivers a fierce, fearless performance. Unfortunately, Davies hasn't built a
reservoir of sympathy for this smart woman who makes foolish choices. For
The House of Mirth to succeed fully, Lily Bart must be truly
exceptional, both physically exquisite and brilliantly versed in the arts of
flirtation and social gamesmanship. Her precarious position, and her ultimate
fall from grace, should be all the more heartbreaking because she seems so good
at what she does. Yet as directed by Davies, Anderson's Lily seems defeated
from the start. "People are getting tired of me," the character announces early
on. What could be a provocation, a tease to draw Lawrence closer, reads as no
more than a dark portent in the actress's mannered delivery.
I don't mean to say that Anderson gives a bad performance, or that Davies chose
his lead unwisely. He's made a deliberate decision -- a pox on all their
houses, Lily's included. Casting a feckless Eric Stoltz as Lawrence tips the
balance as well; Lily's true, if impossible, love feels no more substantial
than the bores, and boors, she sees right through. Neither Aykroyd nor LaPaglia
seems quite right either, though their key confrontation scenes with Lily are
among the film's most piercing. On the other hand, Eleanor Bron is chilling as
Lily's mercurial aunt, and Elizabeth McGovern exudes world-weary cynicism as an
old friend. Hiding a lethal tongue behind a cheery, apple-cheeked
façade, Laura Linney commands the screen in only a few deft scenes as
Bertha. After years in the wife-or-girlfriend ghetto where so many actresses
get stranded, Linney has enjoyed a well-deserved career boost, thanks to this
role and her marvelous turn in You Can Count on Me.
In scripting The House of Mirth, Davies has kept many of Edith Wharton's
choicest lines, and he even creates a few of his own, in her style. Late in the
film, he takes one of Lily's lines in the book and gives it instead to
Elizabeth McGovern. Gossiping while she absent-mindedly combs out her hair
before a mirror, Lily realizes that yet another friend has turned against her.
"My dear," McGovern remarks, speaking for Edith Wharton, certainly, but even
more for Terence Davies, "the world is vile."