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by Shahiar Khan | september, 2000


America 1905. Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), glamorous and gorgeous, glides through New York aristocracy. She is attracted to playboy lawyer Lawrence Selden (Eric Stolz) but of course would never say so in so many words. Throughout the movie, his feelings for her remain a mystery.
Men attempt to seduce Lily with money, favours, wit and charm. Naturally, the wives and lovers of these men get rather jealous and do what they can to hurt Lily.
Lily suffers humiliating public disgrace because of Mrs. Beth Dorset’s scheming (Laura Linney). Her rich aunt (Eleanor Bron) on her deathbed cuts her out of her inheritance. Very large debts mount up with no means of repaying them. All the doors that would once swing open for her now close in her face. Without rank, money or prospects she is forced to work for a living but finds she cannot survive.

Americans don’t ‘do’ irony now of course, Edith Wharton was probably their last practitioner. Viewers who go to The House of Mirth expecting a rip-roaring time will be rather disappointed. Rather like those who went to the Scorsese adaptation of The Age of Innocence expecting to see men and women with plummy accents for whom butter wouldn’t melt, might have been. However, those who stay the course of Terence Davies’ latest will be rewarded by a demonstration of masterful acting, directing and a salutary lesson on how life for a woman in 1905 may not be so different from life today.

Your parents fuck you up another master ironist once said, and we all know what men want, but what is so shocking about The House of Mirth is how much women have it in for each other. The sisterhood is one monster cat farm where the aim is to catch a fat cat, spay him, live off his money and then go out looking for some new toms. Innocents like Gillian Anderson’s character Lily Bart might smoke a little, play some cards and may not be averse to visiting a bachelor’ s rooms unaccompanied (thus setting up the chain of events that lead to her tragic downfall) but compared to high-society women like Laura Linney’s Beth Dorset they are mere pussycats.

Beth Dorset, married to one of the richest and most boring men in New York, with one well-directed sentence at the dinner table can condemn another human being to a life far away from ease, comfort and splendour. So far that they can never hope to compete with her again. For Lily seems to have the heart of the man Beth wants, Lawrence Selden (not that he’d ever do anything so gauche as admit it). And Beth thinks Lily may know of at least two of Beth’s affairs.

A consistent theme in Davies’ work has been the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’. The world will always be too difficult for fragrant spirits like Lily. If you’re too sensitive then life can be almost unbearable. One may think the story of a New York society girl in 1905 shouldn’t really be of relevance to a contemporary audience, but it is thanks to the incandescence of Gillian Anderson. She is a revelation, who’d have thought there’d be so much truth out there? That she could quite so magically let the language in her heart shine so clearly through her eyes, through every tilt and angle of her glorious profile is a revelation. She takes us into her heart and soul, in a way that is deeply affecting. We are made to feel for her. An outstanding performance. Terence Davies: He Can Direct Actors.

What he doesn’t do as well is write film-dialogue, or rather he writes too much. There are passages in this movie which are like hearing paint dry. Expositionally too, it would have been better to have had greater evidence of Lily’s eminence in high society at the beginning of the movie – it would have made her subsequent fall even more affecting. And the presence of Anthony LaPaglia as the Wall Street financier, Sim Rosedale – surely it would have been apposite for some in the audience to have it pointed out to them that this new prince of New York was not just new money but also Jewish. Society’s and Lily’s mutual fascination with Rosedale would have had another dimension. American filmakers just might be more aware than the British about some things !

Terence Davies could well direct one of the all-time great silent movies. Such is the richness and texture of his composition, the sensitivity to his actors, his ability to get the maximum bang for the minimum buck that words are almost superfluous to the telling of his story. He hardly even uses music here either. Think of the Scorsese-Wharton here, way bigger budget, way more movement of camera, way more movement of people, more, more, more everything. Except what really counts: what people show of themselves to each other.

Laura Linney as Beth Dorset with her dimples and smiles and assassin’s eyes is a woman not to be crossed; she acts an actress in The House of Mirth and does it with great skill. Notwithstanding her ease with men, the sisterhood is where Lily Bart turns to share her troubles and joys. And in the hierarchy of women it quickly becomes obvious that the ones with the best hair are the ones with the most power. Elizabeth McGovern plays a society friend of Lily’s and as much as she wants to help Lily in her troubles, her hair is too uncoiffed. In the battle of the bonnets, she can be of no real influence in New York. Beth Dorset’s coiffure of course, is the best and even Lily Bart’s flaming Titian-red hair, pre-Raphaelite at the peak of her popularity, (there is an amazing screen filling ten-second shot of her crown at one stage) is no match.

The British actresses in the production should not be overlooked here, Penny Downie as randy buccaneer banker Dan Aykroyd’s put-upon wife and Eleanor Bron as Lily’s wealthy dowager aunt (hastened to death by the thought of Lily’s card-playing debts) do much with their cameos but the best performance in the House of Mirth is actually Jodhi May’s.

Jodhi May may yet end up stealing more movies from their ostensible stars than Denholm Elliott. Playing a niece-ward to Eleanor Bron, she also loves Eric Stolz’s Lawrence Selden and is deeply hurt and enraged by Lily’s cavalier irresponsibility. Two hours in to the film, Terence Davies and Gillian Anderson have led us to be 100% behind Lily in her trials and tribulations but Jodhi May, tears running down her face, puts us and Lily straight. Lily is as much sinning as sinned against.

But Lily ultimately attains the stature of tragic hero because of her nobility. She will not do anything to hurt anybody else. Even if it means paying the ultimate price. Salvation lies in her grasp but she will not stoop to exposing Beth for it means admitting to the world the man she loves, Lawrence, was capable of loving someone other than herself.

Women like Lily have two options: marry for money or find a "position suited to (her) skills". Love is not easy. Work can be hard and demeaning. The best available men are not worthy of the best women. The film’s closing caption as Lawrence kneels at Lily’s bedside is "New York 1907". Now, that’s ironic.

In a Nutshell: Wordy but worthy adaptation of powerful Edith Wharton classic.

Director and Writer : Terence Davies
Adapted from the novel The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Eric Stolz, Dan Aykroyd, Anthony LaPaglia, Laura Linney
Production Company: C4 Films (aka Film Four International)
Country: UK
Year: 2000
Length: 140 mins

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