The House of Mirth (DVD, 2001) Reviews
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The House of Mirth (DVD, 2001)

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A woman crushed

May 1, 2002 (Updated May 19, 2010)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:photography, music, costumes, most of the performances

Cons:some odd castings of male roles

The Bottom Line: Beautifully made film, but it is hard to understand Lily's commitment to the protecting the code of hypocrisy.


Edith Wharton has been well served on film in recent years. Her three best-known books have all been vividly realized on screen: Martin Scorcese’s opulent ‘Age of Innocence’ John Madden’s bleak ‘Ethan Frome,’ and Terrence Davies’ bleak and opulent ‘House of Mirth’ now recurring in cable broadcasts. (I missed the PBS miniseries of ‘The Bucaneer’ and the 1999 film of ‘The Reef.’)

Having read the book and seen a stage version of ‘House of Mirth’ two years ago, the plot had no surprises for me. Although I cannot remove that background, the plot of the film seemed clear in-itself. The mystery in all three renditions I’ve seen is not what happens but why.

The rigidity of the code of propriety -- especially on women -- is certainly a major part of the reason Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) is crushed, but she is armed very early on with what could be a lethal weapon against Bertha Dorset (a stunningly vicious Laura Linney). Neither Ms. Wharton nor writer-director Terrence Davies make clear why her scruples survive social death, impoverishment, and, finally, self-inflicted physical death. Bertha Dorset most certainly does not deserve protection, and surely her husband George (Terry Kinney) would be better off with the ammunition to divorce her. And since Lily knows she must marry to live in the manner she wishes, why does she not take him, or the nouveau riche Sam Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia)? Death before dishonor? But she chooses to social dishonor anyway. She is falsely judged by society and, admittedly, in fact upholds the standards, while allowing others she knows are hypocrites and fakes to continue to counterfeit their conformity.

Can it all be to impress Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz)? It seems that her lack of resolve is related to wanting his respect (or wanting him). However, nearly a century after the time in which ‘House of Mirth’ is set, it is hard to credit that Lily cannot find a way to signal him what she wants. In her conversations with Selden, with Rosedale and with her only true friend (Elizabeth McGovern as Carry Fisher) Lily seems to understand her position and the limits of her maneuverability, yet she is unable to implement her insights.

Well do I know that there is a chasm between knowing what one must do and doing it, but is this failure tragic or just stupid? I incline to the latter, mostly because I find it hard to believe that so intelligent a woman can believe so fervently in what she knows is an edifice of lies, hypocrisy, and monstrous selfishness (I consider Jodhi May’s Grace Stepney even more chilling than Bertha Dorset).

I know that Lily is not going to step out of the way of the avalanche of disasters rushing toward her, and am as depressed by watching that as I am by watching some of my friends’ disastrous (and far too protracted) liaisons. I don’t think that Wharton provided catharsis in this tragedy, but it develops with the inevitability of Sophocles (or of Ethan Frome).

I don't mean to underestimate how restrictive Lily Bart’s New York old-money society was for women (though she didn't have bound feet like her Chinese contemporaries!), but she did have ways out. The extent to which she "turns the other cheek" to Bertha is excessive even by Christian standards and I'd bet that those who read Wharton's novel when it was published were at least as likely as I am to think Bertha should be brought down. Of course, it is hard to step outside conventions, but Lily lived at the edge and her conversations as an equal with Rosedale and Selden seem to show an analytical acumen that isn't consistent with being taken so by surprise at that dinner party, especially after Bertha's afternoon conversation. . . And Lily is not so weak-willed that she implodes even then. She goes to work in a hat-making shop, which seems more unthinkable than using the letters!

I think the root of the problem is that Wharton gave Lily too much of her own insight. The author seems to have been like Bertha in doing pretty much what she wanted without creating a scandal (though I hope she did not do it on the bleaching bones of others like Lily Bart!). I think that a Lily who is going to be ground to bits should have been less insightful, though her clear-eyed observation of her perilous position increases the distress of readers/viewers r. This would make sense if Wharton had a reformist intent, if she was writing a ‘protest novel,’ but the world of the novel was already extinct when she wrote it.

The film is beautifully photographed, primarily in Glasgow. Some of Mozart’s most gorgeous music (from ‘Cosi fan tutti’) augments two scenes, and there is a range of other well-chosen music on the soundtrack. The early-20th-century costumes (male as well as female) must have been very uncomfortable, but the casts looks really good in them. Davies’ budget was obviously lower than Scorcese’s, but both films are visually ravishing. I don’t remember the silences in ‘Age of Innocence’ being as eloquent as those in ‘House of Mirth,’ but perhaps I have forgotten.

The dialogue is often in an artificial high-society code. At the beginning of the film, Gillian Anderson’s delivery seems nasal and a bit tentative, but I got used to it -- or it improved. Also, at the beginning she seems too old for the part, and, nearing the end she seems too robust. Nonetheless, she plays the part very well. (I’ve never seen ‘The X-Files’ so have no opinion on her range.) I also think that Eric Stoltz is very good in portraying the man too sophisticated to discern Lily’s not-very complicated motives. Laura Linney is, as I already mentioned devastating as the most devious onscreen blonde since Glenn Close in ‘Dangerous Liaisons.’ The casting of Dan Ackroyd and Anthony LaPaglia is odd. Ackroyd’s doesn’t much matter. His caddishness is timeless. However, LaPaglia is insufficiently odious, and Rosedale’s Jewishness, which is very important in the novel, is completely AWOL from the film, whether Davies jettisoned it in conceiving his version or whether it was after signing LaPaglia.

Pacing? I thought it was fine, and no one walked out of the theater in which I saw it. Probably the audience for tragic tales of women in earlier eras has a longer attention span and savors looking at the opulent appointments of a long-gone era. In my view, the vise tightens around Lily quickly.

©2002, Stephen O. Murray
All rights reserved, not for posting without explicit permission of the author.


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