The House of Mirth

(Terence Davies, UK/USA, 2000)


There is a class of filmgoers that has developed a curious and somewhat irrational aversion to so-called costume pictures. Of course, we have all seen dull, static, historical recreations, often overly reverent adaptations of classic literary works. But if there is any movie which can disabuse people of the notion that period films are doomed to be slavish and unexciting, it is Terence Davies’ astonishing The House of Mirth, a major cultural event in any medium.

A standard synopsis can capture little of what makes this film so captivating and memorable. Closely adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel, it traces the downward trajectory of Lily (Gillian Anderson) within the fishbowl world of American high society near the start of the twentieth century. Lily starts out brash, playful, somewhat rebellious and independent. But, in fact, it is her desperate efforts to fit in – to be accepted and approved of, and to find a suitable husband – which set in motion her stark decline. Lily learns, to her cost, what it means to be “useless” in such a world.

The House of Mirth marks a new departure for Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives, 1988). Certainly, his deepest artistic identifications still seem to be with childlike, passive men and victimised, suffering women. But this material forces him to abandon the former obsessions with memory and nostalgia that were beginning to embalm his work, as was evident in  The Neon Bible (1995). Indeed, the only specific references here to a historical time and place – the titles superimposed over the first and final images, "New York 1905" and “New York 1907”, marking the brief period it takes for Lily to decline and fall – is deliberately abrupt and disconcerting, rather than evocative and lulling.

Some may regard The House of Mirth as a low-budget footnote to Martin Scorsese’s masterly adaptation of another Wharton classic, The Age of Innocence (1993). There are indeed many concerns common to both films: the portrait of a society bound by rigid rules; the stress on surface details of etiquette and decor; the double binds and cross-purpose misunderstandings, peculiar to Wharton’s fiction, that conspire to crush potentially affirmative and liberating love relationships. Both films build to a similar, wrenching epiphany for an entire adult life wasted – a loss which is encapsulated and rued in a single, spoken phrase (here, Lily’s unforgettable “ten thousand dollars, ten thousand dollars!”).

But where Scorsese’s film benefited from its intense lavishness, Davies makes a striking virtue of his minimal means. (It is, to some extent, in fact a telemovie in its production and financing provenance.) This is cinema pared to the bone, in which every gesture, glance or slight camera movement is carefully weighted for maximum emotional impact.

Davies’ handling of plot (which is not always easy to follow on a first viewing) is also bravely severe: certain key events (such as Lily’s gambling) are constantly referred to but never shown, making us share the characters’ own niggling doubts about the truth or untruth of appearances (“Where a woman is concerned”, comments Lily, “the truth is the story that’s easiest to believe”).

The delicate tension of the piece is evident not only in the rigorously chiselled images but also its sparse, disquieting sounds: the low noises of passing horses, bells or ticking clocks, heard but rarely seen, impart a subtle mood to the pauses between lines of dialogue.

Burt Reynolds once said of the director Sergio Leone that actors loved him because he knew how to give each character a definite, indelible entrance on screen. Davies also recognises the value of this procedure. As his performers walk, glide or dart into frame for the first time, the film suggests at once both the vanity that underlies their masquerade and the precarious pretence that will likely undo them in the long run. Even more profoundly, such images go right to the heart of the movie’s central theme.

The House of Mirth is all about social portraiture – about people, especially the women in this New York society, who groom themselves as images to be read, traded and consumed (even the opening credits show, abstractly, an image being detailed, filled in). This is the same, guiding theme that Jane Campion tentatively approached in her adaptation of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1996), but Davies gives it substance, rigour and dynamism.

Lily at one point explicitly offers herself up to her community as a tableau vivant to be admired. However, it is a moment of high unease and foreboding. Indeed, whenever Davies freezes Lily (for instance, as a silhouette in a train window), we know she resents or regrets the strain of this constant, uncertain performance.

In this world that converts people into images, Davies emphasises common turns of phrase that have a sinister ring – like “I can’t make you out” and “You’re such a wonderful spectacle”. Deftly, Davies makes restrained use of all the classic motifs of movie melodrama since the silent era – mirrors, doorways, staircases – to suggest how his heroine is (in every sense) framed, caught at every turn. Even Lily’s ultimate struggle against the world that has excluded her is rendered in an ironically picturesque way.

Davies is a passionate cinephile, but (unlike Scorsese) he is not one to indulge in overt citations or homages to other films. Traces of other crucified-woman movies by Max Ophüls (Madame De …, 1953), Josef von Sternberg (Morocco, 1930) or Kenji Mizoguchi (Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, 1939) enter The House of Mirth only as faint, suggestive, enriching echoes. The single liberty which Davies permits himself in this regard – indicated by his description of Lily as an “almost Hitchcockian heroine” – is completely of a piece with Wharton’s own intentions.

There are moments in the film that, on the level of atmosphere, approach Gothic horror – just as there is in Wharton’s writing. The marvellous scenes in which Lily’s aunt Julia (Eleanor Bron) scolds her, eventually to the point of social excommunication, become progressively darker and scarier. The intuitive connection Davies makes here between Wharton and Hitchcock is astute, because films such as Notorious (1946) tapped into a particular, modern tradition of Female Gothic, full of monstrous matriarchs and men who could flip-flip in a moment from a rescuing Prince Charming into a rapacious beast.

Classically, in these Gothic tales, heroines find themselves facing a difficult choice between male love-objects that turns out to be a dead-end or a trap. This is certainly the case for Lily, as she vacillates between the principled but cowardly Selden (Eric Stoltz), the ruthless deal-maker Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) and sleazy Trenor (Dan Aykroyd). The paradox of Lily’s predicament is that she is ultimately undone by the deflected effects of other people’s indiscretions, especially those of the calculating Bertha (Laura Linney).

Davies knows how to shape and blend an acting ensemble. His casting choices are bold: Aykroyd and LaPaglia, for instance, need to shed the associations they carry from their previous Hollywood work, and they manage to do so admirably. Davies is the first director, in my view, to turn Stoltz into a convincing screen presence; for once, his naturally weak, high-pitched voice and unimposing physical manner are used in an exceptionally expressive way. Linney and Bron are also superb.

But the greatness of The House of Mirth belongs to Gillian Anderson as much as to Davies. She has always been impressive in The X-Files, but here she is truly riveting. Her dramatic modulations of posture, attitude and vocal tone – from one end of the film to the other, and often within individual scenes – are outstanding. This is a remarkable example of what a true collaboration between an exacting director and a star can achieve.

© Adrian Martin November 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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