House of Mirth

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH

6/10

UK/US 2000
dir./scr. Terence Davies (based on the novel by Edith Wharton)
cin. Remi Adefarasin
stars Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz
140 minutes

The House of Mirth is a serious, well-intentioned, unusually intelligent picture, but it’s not altogether satisfying or successful. It’s reminiscent of Jane Campion’s A Portrait of a Lady from 1996, but falls a notch short of that picture, which brought some bold new ideas – not to mention John Malkovich – into the cosy world of the costume drama. There’s little to fault about Davies’s careful direction – the problem lies instead with his script, a disjointed and often confusingly rushed condensation of a lengthy source novel.

Though casting X-Files star Gillian Anderson in the central role of Lily Bart, a doomed would-be social climber on the fringes of turn-of-the-century New York high society, may have seemed a risky move, it turns out to be an entirely logical one, her Titian hair and milky features at the centre of Davies’ heavily colour-coordinated approach. This must be one of the greenest movies ever made – at various stages the colour symbolises money (which Lily seeks to marry into) and inexperience (which causes her to reject various suitors, and to drift into parlous financial straits), then envy and pernicious decay. House of Mirth is a poem of self-defeat, a symphony of failure: Lily falls between the cracks in her society, and so illuminates their contours.

Davies is refreshingly unfussy in his recreation of a bygone world, and though there’s something over-familiar about the way scenes veer from civility to viciousness – typified by Laura Linney, as Lily’s sweetly acidic nemesis Bertha – the studied approach generally pays dividends. In a strong cast the standouts are Eleanor Bron, who wrings every drop of vitriol out of Lily’s disapproving Aunt, and Anthony Lapaglia, as a brash businessman whose candour stands out a mile in an otherwise frustrating world of duplicity, artifice and insinuation – though still not far enough for the myopic, stupid, tragic Lily to recognise a good thing when she sees one.