The House of Mirth

UK/USA/France/Germany, 2000. Rated PG. 140 minutes.

Cast: Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Dan Aykroyd, Laura Linney, Eleanor Bron, Terry Kinney, Anthony LaPaglia, Elizabeth McGovern, Jodhi May, Penny Downie, Perce Quigley, Helen Cooker
Writer: Terence Davies, based on the eponymous novel by Edith Wharton
Music: Adrian Johnston
Cinematographer: Remi Adefarasin
Producers: Olivia Stewart
Director: Terence Davies


Grade: A- Review by Carlo Cavagna

M ovies based on highly-regarded classics of literature are often judged based on how well they adapt the novel to the screen. Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I will not write a detailed comparison of The House of Mirth to Edith Wharton's novel because I have not read it.

The question of how well a screenplay adapts a novel can make a lively subject for discussion, but it is not directly relevant to the question of how good a film is. I believe in judging a movie own its own merits, as a stand-alone work. A movie by its very nature cannot replicate the content of a novel. The running time requires trimming scenes, characters, and subplots, and the nature of the medium prevents you from easily accessing the protagonist's inner life the way an omniscient narrator can. Unless the filmmaker employs an approach like High Fidelity (wherein the protagonist speaks directly to the camera in Nick Hornby's original prose), a movie must communicate in different ways: through visual style, metaphor, and nuance. A film is faithful to a novel not by reproducing the words and the plot as much as possible, but by reproducing the spirit of a book.

Though I have not read House of Mirth, I am familiar enough with Wharton to know that writer/director Terence Davies has done justice to her work. He compensates for the lack of an omniscient narrator's directness with lush visual detail and the subtle talents of his actors. Indeed, if House of Mirth is faithful to the essence of the novel, it must be a damn good novel.

As those familiar with Wharton or previous film adaptations of her work (Martin Scorsese's Age of Innocence and John Madden's Ethan Frome) can guess, The House of Mirth is a grim, dark tale. Like Wharton's other works, The House of Mirth is a treatment of the oppressive mores of turn-of-the-century high-society New York and the ruthlessness disguised by that society's veneer of civility. The violence never erupts as such per se, but finds other ways of expressing itself. Though they never draw a knife or fire a gun, the characters in Wharton's works rape and murder one another, just as surely as they do in a modern mobster movie or a 1940s film noir. Words are code, fraught with hidden meanings and innuendo. People's lives are destroyed in the turn of a phrase. Eric Stoltz and Gillian Anderson

Our protagonist, Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), lives in this world obsessed with appearances, afflicted with two inexcusable maladies: lack of money and lack of a husband. Though beautiful and strong-willed, Lily is in her late twenties and her upbringing has prepared her for nothing other than being a wife. She can no longer avoid marriage. She sets about the task of snaring a husband diligently, if unenthusiastically, and intends to marry rich.

Three obstacles stand in Lily's way. First, Lily has something of a scandalous reputation–she's independent, she speaks her mind, she smokes, she plays bridge for money, and she allows herself to be seen with too many men. Second, she is already in love with a man, Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), who does not fulfill her marriage criteria. The third obstacle is Lily herself. Though she believes herself to be worldly, she has an almost inborn ability to make foolish decisions, and she consistently misjudges people's motives. She is a ripe target for exploitation.

Watching Lily is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. Taken individually, none of Lily's indiscretions is fatal, but together, they send her down a path of self-destruction in minuscule steps. Similarly, we incrementally go from wondering why we should care about Lily to feeling her despair as strongly as she does. In the first twenty minutes, we have Lily pegged as an erratic opportunist, but over the course of the film, we learn differently. The real Lily bears little resemblance to the woman she presents to society.

The only person who seems to see the real Lily is Selden. He challenges her motives and warns her against unscrupulous predators, but he is oddly passive. He, too, is trapped by social conventions. An unsuitable match for Lily, he is loath to make a strong play for her hand in marriage–even later in the story, when she might gladly accept. By that point, however, Lily has become an inappropriate match for him. Lily's few other friends and allies are similarly weak. They know she is not the person the gossipmongers make her out to be, but they will not stand up for her publicly. It's a man's world, and as Lily observes late in the story, men "will forgive a woman almost anything except the loss of her good name."

Anderson was already a star, but this role proves she is a first-rate, top-tier actor. She is an inspired choice to play Lily. Wharton described Lily as "vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine."(1) Completely at ease in period dress, Anderson more than measures up to that description, and she displays a surprising subtlety and range of emotion essential for us to understand the character. Had the actress been too weak, the complex story would have been reduced to a one-dimensional feminist morality play. The biting satire and the sense of tragedy would have been lost. Had the actress been too strong, her fall from grace would have been unconvincing.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, though I personally find the appearance of where-are-they-now poster girl Elizabeth McGovern a little jarring. She seems to pop up in the oddest places. Eleanor Bron as Lily's unforgiving, rich Aunt Julia is a caricature, but it works in the context of the story. Eric Stoltz is okay, for lack of a better word, and Dan Aykroyd embodies a boor well. Anthony LaPaglia appears as Sim Rosedale, one of Lily's suitors, whom Lily refuses because he comes from the wrong kind of money (he's a venture capitalist).
The Big Picture
ratings explained

Apparently, in Wharton's story, Lily deems Rosedale inappropriate also because he is Jewish. This has been excised from the film adaptation. Though purists have criticized this omission, I agree with Davies' choice as one of the necessary cuts of a screen adaptation. To introduce the element of anti-Semitism without the time to explore the issue would have needlessly distracted the modern audience from the main themes and conflicts of the story, which is rich and dense as it is.

The standout in the supporting cast is Laura Linney, who is also drawing critical raves for her lead performance in You Can Count on Me. In contrast to the charmingly imperfect character she plays in that film, here she is Lily's alleged best friend, Bertha Dorset, who is an unctuous schemer. Linney handles the role with gusto.

In the final analysis, Lily's fatal weakness is that she doesn't know herself any better than the rest of the world does. Lily makes choices that she herself does not comprehend. She desires to adhere to convention, but she finds herself unable to do so. Even as her life grows more difficult, with her reputation worsening and her financial situation growing grim, she always holds the means to rehabilitate her social standing firmly in her grasp. Will she restore herself into high society's good graces, or will she self-destruct? Not until the final act unfolds is a full portrait of Lily finally unveiled. For that reason, The House of Mirth may occasionally seem to drag, but the last act is a hell of a payoff, rendering the preceding events more significant than they at first appear to be.

The House of Mirth is, to use a term coined by AboutFilm's Dana Knowles in reference to Sunshine, a "way homer." That is to say, it is a film with elements that do not feel entirely satisfying while you're sitting in the theater, but which become more cohesive and revelatory as you think about it on the way home. "Way homers" often improve on second viewing, when you already have a complete picture into which to fit all the pieces of the film. They are like a mural whose individual elements don't make sense until you step away from it and view the entire work.

Some may complain that The House of Mirth is slow-paced and overly restrained. It is indeed restrained–that's part of the point. Restraint is what Wharton wrote about–the stifling, paralyzing strictures of turn-of-the-century society, which required individuals to repress their passions and adhere rigidly to its rules. (In The Age of Innocence, for example, Scorsese brilliantly represented this idea by creating an oppressively heavy visual atmosphere.) And The House of Mirth is indeed slowly paced. (The Age of Innocence sustained narrative momentum better without sacrificing the essence of Wharton's work.) But the outstanding conclusion and satisfying effect of the completed film make up for any seat squirming you might experience during the first hour.

(1) I would like to acknowledge Harvey S. Karten for highlighting Wharton's original description of Lily Bart in his review.

Review © January 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

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