|© 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.
In my estimation, the best film of 2000 was Terence Davies' exquisite adaptation
of Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth. Although funded by Showtime networks
and originally intended to premiere on that cable channel, the film received rave
reviews at the Edinburgh Film Festival and Sony Pictures Classics thankfully picked it
up for U.S. Distribution, allowing the movie to screen at the 38th New York Film
Festival and to have a theatrical release.
Wharton's 1905 novel of the Gilded Age centers on Lily Bart, a woman in the
perilous position of possessing only her beauty and no financial prospects in a closed
and repressive society. Her major flaw is her foolishness -- she gambles and falls into
debt, thereby setting off a chain reaction that eventually leads to her being cast out of
the circles in which she was raised. Although very much of its time, Wharton's fiction
has resonance to the 21st Century in her emphasis on the importance of wealth and
From its terrific opening sequence with Lily (Gillian Anderson) emerging from a
cloud of steam on a railway platform (a direct homage to the introduction of Marilyn
Monroe's Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot) to its moving conclusion, The House of
Mirth is suffused with beauty and elegance. Davies' previous efforts have been almost
impressionistic in form, but with this film, he directly tackles a linear tale and recounts
it with restraint and dignity. Perhaps some will be off put by the film's stately approach
to the material, but that is precisely what makes it so great. Davies is one of the few
directors willing to trust silence -- and he coaxes marvelous performances out of his
actors. Ably assisted by his superlative design team (including cinematographer Remi
Adefarasin, production designer Don Taylor and costume designer Monica Howe), the
director has reconstructed turn-of-the-century New York in glorious detail and the film
feels like a series of John Singer Sargent paintings come to full-bodied life.
In a bold casting choice, Gillian Anderson portrays the heroine Lily Bart. Although
for some there will be the initial shock of seeing “The X-Files”' Agent Dana Scully in
period clothing, Anderson overcomes that handicap almost immediately to deliver a
mesmerizing performance. Emerging from that cloud of steam, with her perfect
hourglass figure, she is a walking Charles Dana Gibson portrait. Her flirtatious banter
with Selden (Eric Stoltz) is delightful, and the actors share a palpable chemistry
that becomes evident in one particular scene that recalls the erotically charged
encounter of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun.
The large supporting cast is terrific, with special praise to Laura Linney as a
haughty and nasty society doyenne, Terry Kinney as her meek cuckold of a husband,
Eleanor Bron as Lily's disapproving aunt, Anthony LaPaglia as an ardent suitor, and
Jodhi May as her mousy cousin.
But make no mistake, the real triumph of The House of Mirth resides with Davies
(who also wrote the screenplay), and, most especially with Anderson who
demonstrates an astonishing range in a performance that should have won awards,
but instead, was overlooked egregiously.