Laura Clifford Robin CliffordLily Bart (Gillian Anderson) is a beautiful socialite trying to land a rich husband in the shark infested waters of turn of the century New York society. She loves Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz), but won't consider marrying a working man. Lily is adept at making bad choices and when her acceptance of a married man's financial advise is perceived as an affair, her fortunes quickly nosedive in writer/director Terence Davies' Edith Wharton adaptation, "The House of Mirth."
British director Davies ("Distant Voices, Still Lives") has gathered an unusual cast and set them in an unusual stand-in for New York (Glasgow, Scotland) to tell Wharton's tragic tale. They (mostly) work.
Lily doesn't value her lover until she discovers she has a competitor, Mrs. Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney, "You Can Count on Me"). (She later comes into possession of Bertha's love letters to Seldon - she's mistakenly blackmailed by a housekeeper at his apartment building, The Benedict, who's seen Lily leaving Seldon's rooms - which could provide her only means of salvation.) Yet she still parades her prospects in front of Lawrence in a kind of 'we're all adults here' manner. She doesn't treat these men much better. Mr. Gryce (Pearce Quigley) becomes discouraged with her lack of attention and Mr. Rosedale (Anthony Lapaglia), while rich, isn't deemed of proper social standing.
After she discovers that the investment earnings of $10,000 given her by a hopeful Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd) were really gifts, she's determined to repay the money which she's already spent. Her social circle, however, shuns her, for having kept company with the married Trenor. Her inheritance from her wealthy aunt (Eleanor Bron, "The Little Princess"), $10,000, is long in coming and her spiteful cousin Grace (Jodhi May, "A World Apart") refuses to help. Now Mr. Rosedale considers her damaged goods. Only the eccentric Carry Fisher (Elizabeth McGovern) will remain her friend. A position as a companion ends when her employer Mrs. Hatch (Lorelie King) enters society and an apprenticeship at a milliner's fails as well. She refuses help from a truly distressed Rosedale, who somehow knows, and reminds her of, Bertha's incriminating letters.
Any who judge Anderson as wooden based on her portray of "The X-Files'" Agent Scully will surely change their opinion after viewing her work here. Although she seems a bit too modern at first (a problem that costars Dan Aykroyd and Anthony Lapaglia don't overcome), Anderson turns that into an asset as she gets into Lily Bart's skin. As Lily's over confidence, even snobbery, turns to disbelief, then resignation, Anderson fully engages us in Bart's complex and unfair situation. The wash of emotions that play over Anderson's face when Mr. Rosedale tells the impoverished Lily that 'you could wipe your feet on them' (referring to society) is one of the finest pieces of acting in the year 2000. It's a brilliant performance.
Stoltz plays Seldon cooly, as a man of privilege, who retains control of his emotions until it's too late. McGovern, a fine, under utilized actress, is solid as the unconventional Mrs. Fisher. Laura Linney pulls out her claws as the shrewish, manipulative Bertha. Dan Aykroyd isn't quite right as Gus Trenor. Lapaglia also seems miscast as Sim Rosedale, although when his character's standing rises above Lily's he wears the role more successfully.
Davies' adaptation encompasses all the layers and below surface simmerings of Wharton's story. His modern use of cigarettes to signify passion is amusing - where there's smoke, there's fire. Things are said loudly, without being said at all, such as when Rosedale tells Lily he owns The Benedict and informs her that its name means confirmed bachelor.
The location choice of Glasgow, which is strong in Victorian architecture, doesn't capture a New York feel, but Davies uses intimate shots to focus on his characters rather than their surroundings. This Wharton adaptation is very different from Scorcese's "The Age of Innocence," where costume and art production were lively and pushed to the forefront. Davies' film is dark, brooding and a bit heavy feeling (cinematography by Remi Adefarasin ("Elizabeth") and production design by Don Taylor ("Emma")).
"The House of Mirth" is an ironic title for a literary heroine with an ironic fate. Lily Bart's story is compelling and Gillian Anderson's portrayal of her is inspired.
Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) is a pretty, intelligent young woman whose mission in life is to land and wealthy, socially prominent husband in early 20th century New York City. But, her ambitions and bad decisions will come to haunt her on the road to poverty in director/screenwriter Terence Davies' adaptation of Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth."
The period work of Edith Wharton holds no charm, normally, for me, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed watching "The House of Mirth." Lily, as played by "The X-Files" star Anderson, is a strong-minded woman who, when we meet her, seems certain to get exactly what she wants from life. She rebuffs the advances of a handsome young lawyer, Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), who, though well bred, does not earn enough for her liking. Lily's mercenary nature leads her down a path that will end in poverty and despair.
While "The House of Mirth" isn't going to break any box office records, it is still a well-crafted, well-acted film that showcases a top performance from Gillian Anderson. The actress is pigeon holed in her Agent Scully persona from "The X-Files," but has proven herself to be a talented character actor - see her terrific little performance in "The Mighty." In "House of Mirth" she takes on the starring role and gives one on the best, most subtle performances of 2000.
The rest of this little gem is equal to the efforts of Anderson. The large supporting cast provides wonderful depth to the background characters with solid perfs all around. Anthony LaPaglia, Eric Stolz, Laura Linney (in a truly, sublimely wicked little role), Eleanor Bron and the rest give credence and dimension to their well-defined roles.
Helmer/scripter Terence Davies does a marvelous job of adapting the Wharton novel to the screen. The stage director uses his skilled background to provide a play-like environment for the actors, but with the benefit of lush sets and costume that flesh out the material to movie, rather than stage, stature.
"The House of Mirth" could be a breakout film for Anderson, but a lot depends on how much box office attention the movie gets. I give it a B+.
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