Friday December 22, 2000
Through his acclaimed autobiographical films, most notably "Distant Voices, Still Lives," England's Terence Davies has demonstrated a knack for bringing the past alive to disclose pain and treachery beneath a seductively evocative surface. He proves well-suited to bring to the screen "The House of Mirth," a devastating expose of the cruelty and hypocrisy of high society a century ago. As a portrait of the vulnerability of women of meager means but social entree, "The House of Mirth," an ironic title if ever there was one, recalls Oscar Wilde's "The Ideal Husband" and Henry James' "The Europeans" but takes a far harsher tone.
With Glasgow standing in for New York in the years between 1905 and 1907, this Sony Pictures Classics release re-creates the Gilded Age in all its magnificence and misery, and affords a glorious role for "The X-Files' " Gillian Anderson, whose performance as the ill-fated Lily Bart is one of the year's best.
Anderson's Lily has been raised to believe that a woman's only goal is to land a husband, the richer the better. Lily is too honest and intelligent not to go about her husband-hunting without a lot of forthright irony, a stance that conceals her actual naivete. She has captured the attention of a socialite attorney, Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), who toys with Lily's emotions yet has no intention of marrying her--it would seem that while he makes enough to live comfortably as a bachelor, he cannot afford a wife and still live in acceptable style. (It would also seem that he indulges in affairs only with married women.)
In an effort to conform, Lily has taken to playing card games she neither enjoys nor, much worse, can afford. With only a tiny income and handouts from a rich, sour old aunt (Eleanor Bron), Lily finds herself saddled with gambling debts and turns to help from the husband (Dan Aykroyd) of her best friend (Penny Downie), only to discover that he expects her to repay him by becoming his mistress. Shocked, Lily refuses, taking her first steps toward a spiritual odyssey as harrowing as the ordeals experienced by Robert Bresson's heroes and heroines.
Gossip and malicious mischief preoccupy most of the women in Lily's world, in which appearance and status are everything, and Lily finds her reputation compromised all the faster because of her actual innocence. In an atmosphere of social mobility oiled by new money, Lily emerges as a true aristocrat, a woman of unswerving character and nobility of spirit.
She also discovers the terrible truth of her uselessness--of her inability to support herself in her increasingly dire straits. "The House of Mirth" becomes as bleak as any play pertaining to the House of Atreus, but it possesses such a fire-and-ice intelligence and passion that its sense of the tragic is exalted in effect, as in the tragedies of Aeschylus.
Davies does a splendid job as a writer and director. Stoltz's beautifully drawn Selden, a man who has allowed his intelligence to be undermined by shallowness, recalls a character played by Gena Rowlands in Davies' 1995 "The Neon Bible," an easygoing band singer, who, like Selden, never considers the impact she has on those who come to adore her. Stoltz heads a scintillating supporting cast that includes Aykroyd; Anthony LaPaglia as a self-made man eager to make the marriage that will prove him socially acceptable; Laura Linney as the nastiest of the socialites; and Elizabeth McGovern as the nicest.
There is an aesthetic unity to "The House of Mirth" that Martin Scorsese's Wharton adaptation, the costlier and starrier "The Age of Innocence," lacked. If this film avoids the jarring anachronisms in decor that marred the Scorsese film, it is fortunate to have Aykroyd to supply a certain plain-spoken earthiness, because the Glasgow milieu is too tasteful to reflect the all-American exuberance and vulgarity that characterized so much in American taste and design in the early 20th century. But this is a minor quibble in the light of Davies' accomplishment, which above all else expresses the timeless impact of Lily Bart's plight.
The House of Mirth, 2000. PG; for thematic material. A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Showtime and Granada presentation in association with the Arts Council of England, Film Four, the Scottish Arts Council and the Glasgow Film Fund. Writer-director Terence Davies; from the novel by Edith Wharton. Producer Olivia Stewart. Executive producers Bob Last, Pippa Cross. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin. Editor Michael Parker. Music director Adrian Johnson. Costumes Monica Howe. Production designer Don Taylor. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart. Eric Stoltz as Lawrence Selden. Dan Aykroyd as Gus Trenor. Laura Linney as Bertha Dorset.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times