House of Mirth, The B+
Adapted for the screen from Edith Wharton’s much beloved novel, Terence Davies’ “The House of Mirth” is more satisfying on any number of levels than “The Age of Innocence,” Scorsese’s 1993 version of Wharton’s other famous novel.
“House of Mirth,” which premiered at the 2000 Locarno Film Festival, is Davies’ most accessible and commercial film to date, in large part due to the casting. The ensemble is headed by Gillian Anderson (of TV’s “The X-Files” fame), Laura Linney, Dan Aykroyd.
Though based on an established literary source, Davies (who also wrote the screenplay) has made a personal, auteurist work, which bears testimony to his distinctive themes, visual styles, and grace.
Set in New York, in 1905, the story opens as Lily (Gillian Anderson) takes tea at the apartment of Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), a young bachelor lawyer to whom Lily is attracted. But she cannot marry him, because he is not wealthy enough.
Lily stops at Selden’s apartment en route to Bellomont, where she plans to meet a potential husband at the country home of shifty businessman Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd) and his wife. Gus agrees to invest some money for Lily, but his intentions toward her quickly turn personal and carnal. When Lily rebuffs Gus’ advances, she finds herself $9,000 in debt.
Help is then offered by the financier Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), who extends to Lily a businesslike proposition of marriage. Though she is tempted, Lily refuses his offer because he is nouveau riche rather than blueblood society.
Lily then journeys to the Mediterranean, where she has been invited to the home of Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney), a socialite who schemes to use Lily as an unwitting decoy for an affair, though she is maaried to George (Terry Kinney).
When the trip goes bad, George tells Lily that he wants to divorce the slatternly Bertha, but needs some solid proof of her affairs. Lily knows that one of Bertha’s previous lovers was Selden, but her loyalty to him prevents her from speaking up. Still in debt to Gus, and given only a paltry inheritance by her aunt (Eleanor Bron), Lily endures several unsuccessful jobs. Gradually, she sinks into genteel poverty.
With his graceful style, Davies presents an in-depth exploration of the heroine and her encounters, turning the book’s drama of mores and manners into something more somber, lyrical, and tragic.
Anderson is superb as a strong but vulnerable femme, who is highly aware that one false move, one wrong word can damage her reputation and affect her unknown future. Perpetually insecure and never really comfortable, in any position or social interaction, Anderson conveys vividly the way Selden describes her, as “a woman who has it in her to be whatever she believed to be.” And at the end, just like the protagonist (played by Glenn Close) of “Dangerous Liaisons”(1988), when the mask finally slips and another type of woman emerges, she is devastatingly heartbreaking
The versatile Laura Linney is equally effective as Lily’s opposite, sort of a smiling and dangerous nemesis.
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