With the canon of Jane Austen all but exhausted, literary filmmakers continue their assault on Edith Wharton, another sharply observant writer of yore with something timeless to say about the plight of women. Terence Davies's The House of Mirth, from Wharton's beautifully detailed, ironically titled 1905 novel about a mannerly huntress whose quest for the right husband goes tragically wrong, is the most enthralling of these new adaptations. Where John Madden's Ethan Frome was chillingly austere and Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence looked sumptuous but felt bloodless, Davies has nailed Wharton's bitter satire of the flights and follies of New York society in the Gilded Age, and leading lady Gillian Anderson shows dazzling range in her portrayal of the book's doomed heroine.
Perhaps the greatest of Wharton's creations, Lily Bart embodies the novelist's most pressing concerns: the effects of wealth and class on character, the boundaries of social power at the turn of the twentieth century, and the hidden snares of Victorian thought. A clever, beautiful orphan from a good family, Lily initially has high hopes for her future. From among the white-tied suitors at her disposal, she will simply choose the best candidate, marry, and promptly install herself as an aristocratic fixture with nary a care in the world. That's what's expected of her, after all. "Isn't marriage your vocation?" one of the men asks. "Isn't it what you're brought up for?"
Yes, but while Lily knows the rules of her ossified society, she fails to understand how they might exclude her, what savagery lies behind the well-mannered facade. Her heart goes out to Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz), but because he's a mere lawyer -- a careerist mired in the emergent American middle class -- she couldn't possibly marry him. Certainly not for anything so insignificant as love. She is thus left to choose from among a collection of snobs and bounders, each of them exquisitely drawn. Percy Gryce (Pearce Quigley) is rich but hopelessly dull; Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) emits an oily self-regard that makes our skin crawl. The other unmarried men Lily encounters at leaden dinner parties and formal Hudson Valley outings are equally unappealing -- as ponderous as the heavy gold and oppressive sepia tones in which British cinematographer Remi Adefarasin so aptly drapes the scenes.
What to do? Unfortunately, Lily's choices are soon to be torn from her. Eager to explore Wharton's highfalutin soap opera, director Davies (The Long Day Closes, The Neon Bible) salts the proceedings with all of the novelist's classic devices: a bundle of purloined love letters; a conniving vixen named Bertha Dorset (You Can Count on Me's Laura Linney), who will eventually betray Lily for her own purposes; and, most devious of all, a smug socialite named Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd, playing brilliantly against type) who understands the power of money in the new century and does not hesitate to use it. It is Trenor's cruel manipulation, stained with sex and blackmail, that begins to destroy Lily, but he is not the only rogue to face Wharton's withering scrutiny of the male animal. As Lily's friend Grace (Johdi May) succinctly points out: "Men have minds like moral flypaper."
Tricked off to Monte Carlo, where a gaggle of aimless American aristocrats while away the weeks on the decks of yachts and at stuffy dinner parties, Lily falls prey to Bertha Dorset's merciless ploys and, by extension, the hypocrisies of her time. "We resist the great temptations," the newly aware heroine concludes. "It is the little ones that pull us down." In Lily's case, way down. Back in New York with her reputation in ruins, the outcast soon finds herself secretary to an insufferable social climber named Mrs. Hatch (Lorelei King), then -- irony of ironies -- is reduced to working in a millinery shop, stitching hats for the wealthy. In the end, the former belle of the ball has only her individual pride to sustain her. Make what you will of the story's relevance to our own taste for goods and greed.
For Anderson, icon of the X-Files cult for the past seven years, The House of Mirth must have represented a special opportunity, and she's made the most of it. Lily Bart was probably the most substantial movie role of the year, and the Chicago-born, London- and Michigan-raised Anderson embraces it with rare grace and passion, showing us the rise and fall of a blinkered Victorian beauty in splendid detail. As an innocent flirt surveying her realm, Anderson's fine-featured young Lily exudes coy confidence. As a worried striver seeking to pay her debts and sustain her carefree image, the actress produces just the right hints of weariness and strain. As the disillusioned victim of deceit, she visibly retreats into herself, summoning up courage against the world, refusing help and, in the end, attaining her full flower as a character. For its depth and nuance, this is the kind of classic performance that we once would have expected from someone like Bette Davis or Glenda Jackson. Certainly, it shows us that Agent Scully can put away the revolver anytime she chooses and move on.
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