The House of Mirth
directed by Terence Davies
(Sony Pictures, 2000)

"We resist the great temptations, but it is the little ones that eventually pull us down," says Lily Bart, shortly before she brings herself down near the end of The House of Mirth.

Lily (Gillian Anderson) is a woman who receives more proposals in a day than most zoning boards get in a month. And yet she remains single.

Part of the problem is that she wishes to marry rich; part is her devotion to young attorney Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), who knows he can't support her in the style to which she is campaigning. And part is because it's 1905, and, as Selden notes, "A girl must marry; a man if he chooses to."

Lily is in the truly unfortunate position of being dependent on the kindness of relatives, in particular her Aunt Julia (Eleanor Bron), a spartan dame who makes the Wicked Witch of the West look like Gandhi. Aunt Julia tolerated Lily's incessant tossing off of suitors, but becomes livid when she learns Lily owes a lot of money which she lost gambling at bridge -- possibly even on a Sunday.

Lily's fortunes seem to take a turn for the better when, through no fault of her own, she comes into possession of a packet of love letters damning her most dangerous rival. But the letters would also make trouble for Selden, so rather than become her deliverance, they provide one more thing Lily can't make her mind up about.

Edith Wharton's novel is a scorching look at people who would do well to give up their lives of lawn croquet and get a paper route, a timely tale of the trouble the idle rich create the minute they stop idling.

Director Terence Davies' screen version is true to Wharton's words and vision, capturing both the slashing wit of people whose chief interest in life is being cruel to one another and the resounding hollowness that accompanies the endless pursuit of unearned wealth.

To accomplish that, Davies and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin stage House of Mirth as a series of set pieces, a collection of conversations that move from one dark, brown room to the next, punctuated by spare patches of light and interrupted occasionally and briefly by the hustle and bustle of the world outside. It's a fitting motif, though at times it becomes as stuffy as the players who populate it -- almost as if it had been made for Monty Python to parody.

But Davies doesn't quit there. He adds a second layer to his set pieces, murmuring voices that give a gossipy hue to the long, slow dissolves between critical scenes. It's a neat trick, used sparingly and well.

Anderson is overpowering as Lily, dominating all her scenes with an unbeatable combination of passion, looks and internal turmoil. Stoltz is almost as good as the sometimes oily, sometimes sympathetic Selden; and Anthony LaPaglia, as Lily's bluntest suitor, Sim Rosedale, makes a very unattractive character oddly likable by film's end. Only Dan Aykroyd, as wealthy banker Gus Tenor, seems as uncomfortable in 1905 as he looks in Trainer's tuxedo.

House of Mirth is that rare film that seems to have just about everything -- everything, that is, but mirth. It's a temptation worth being pulled down by.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 21 December 2001

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