"Why is it that when we meet, we always play this elaborate game?"—Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson)
Edith Wharton's darkly ironic tale of the pressures of surviving among the upper crust comes to the screen. It was first filmed in 1918, when the culture it scrutinized was still fresh in our memories. With nearly a century behind it, does Wharton's novel still speak to us?
Facts of the Case
Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) steps out of the fog and into the New York social scene of 1905. She is "on the hunt for a husband," and she knows exactly how to play the game. She has a wealthy aunt, doting would-be lovers, and the world is hers to lose. But lose it she does, as her own social miscalculations send her spiraling out of favor and towards a degrading and bitter comeuppance.
There is little humor in The House of Mirth, based on Edith Wharton's painfully ironic novel. But when we first meet Lily Bart, strolling into Grand Central Station, she does engage in some witty banter with the love of her life, Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). This is the lightest moment of the film, the brief period in which Lily's self-possession, her ability to play the social game, is most apparent. She blithely lies to the shrewd Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) when caught leaving Selden's apartment. She cleverly slips her way into genteel company at Gus Trenor's (Dan Aykroyd) estate at Bellomont.
But Lily is doomed from the start. She has too many debts and a propensity for bad timing. She maintains a furious sense of dignity one moment, and becomes crassly manipulative the next. As she tells Selden, she has a talent for doing "the wrong thing at the right time." And the heartless machinations of the Knickerbocker social set of turn-of-the-century New York gives no quarter.
Indeed, Lily is doomed for more reasons than her personal failings and the cruelty of those around her. Her very culture is doomed: her social pretensions are based on codes of privilege that are slowly dying. Rosedale (the only truly honest and responsible character in the film) represents the new, rising middle class, part of a group that the old guard seems embarrassed by, but requires to maintain their leisurely existence. Lily is merely another casualty of a dying world.
Knowing that Lily and her kind are fated for failure from the start, that they will fade back into the fog as the final shot of the film suggests, it might seem difficult to generate sympathy for her, particularly since she engineers much of her own demise through stubbornly bad decisions. This is the very same barrier Martin Scorsese had to overcome in his brilliant adaptation of Wharton's The Age of Innocence. But Scorsese succeeded by focusing on the small moments—a thoughtful look, the touch of a glove—that could reveal the deep emotional echoes that the characters, circumscribed by propriety, could never say aloud.
Director Terence Davies (who wrote the screenplay as well) tries to bring us into Wharton's world by another means: he fills the time with explanatory dialogue. Lily and Selden touch hands, then pull away apprehensively. Then they talk about being cowards. Lily gets her hands on potential blackmail material to use against her rival Bertha (Laura Linney) and talks (to herself) about its value as a weapon. Some of this is Davies' attempt to preserve the sharp cadences of Wharton's language, but much of it is redundant, his attempts to fill in with new exposition what we already see.
In spite of the often overwritten dialogue, the cast acquits itself well in what might easily fall into the trap of a staid costume drama (which it still does from time to time). Gillian Anderson proves more successful at making the transition to the difficult task of developing a multilayered film character than does her X-Files partner David Duchovny. Anthony LaPaglia and Dan Aykroyd, although initially looking a little out of place, manage to convey sufficient intensity in their parts. Aykroyd shows once again why he has carved a successful niche for himself in recent years as a dramatic supporting actor (anything to keep him from making another Blues Brothers sequel). Only Eric Stoltz seems over his head as Lawrence Selden, often seeming more slight than sympathetic.
Columbia TriStar presents The House of Mirth in an anamorphic transfer, which shows only slight edge enhancement. The commentary track by Terence Davies tends to be very dry and full of extremely long silences. He tends to reinforce (perhaps inadvertently) the notion that Lily is a disingenuous social climber who gets the punishment she deserves. He also points out the wealth of changes and additions made in the transition from the novel to the film, making it apparent that the film's flaws are the result of his screenplay and not Wharton. For example, the decision to have Lily and Selden kiss in order to make clear their desire for one another smacks (as noted above) of a lack of subtlety.
Ironically, the film would have benefited from the addition of the extended footage cut from the first reel, presented here with optional commentary by Davies. Again, he is silent for long stretches, but he seems more alive here and a bit irritated at being forced to cut these scenes down. And he should be: the longer version of Lily and Selden's first conversation in his apartment serves to underscore the complexity of their relationship—here the extra dialogue does serve a useful purpose.
Columbia Tristar rounds out the extras with cast and crew filmographies (including Edith Wharton) and a set of trailers this film and several of Sony's other costume dramas (all better films than this one): The Age of Innocence, Little Women, Sense and Sensibility, and The Remains of the Day.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My difficulties with the film are noted above. In addition to the extraneous dialogue, the film seems too crowded and busy, even at two hours and fifteen minutes. Transitions are awkward (except for one lovely dissolve from the rainy streets of New York to a yacht cruising toward Monte Carlo) and the film's pace sometimes seems difficult to gauge—although that may be a byproduct of its relentlessly dour tone. Often, the need to keep track of so much plot results in redundant and artificial moments. For instance, Davies allows Rosedale to have knowledge of the blackmail letters (through some secret means), so that late in the film, Rosedale can remind Lily (and the audience) of this "Chekhov's pistol" as Lily reaches her lowest point. This sort of awkward moment smacks of a writer too in love with his own words (a notion reinforces by Davies' comments about his "wonderful" dialogue on the commentary track) to let the director's images do the talking—ironic considering that the writer and director are one and the same.
In spite of too much dialogue and plot, The House of Mirth features strong performances, particularly from Gillian Anderson. Fans of costume dramas may want to check this one out as well for some lovely production design and its attempt to capture the feel of a doomed past.
Director and screenwriter Terence Davies is given a stern talking-to by this court for trying to supplant his own words for those of Edith Wharton. Gillian Anderson and the rest of the cast are encouraged to continue to try to stretch themselves by continuing to play against type and show their true potential.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Terence Davies
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