In the rush to proclaim the latest anti-drug manifesto or
epic the best film of last year, a truly remarkable film got lost along
the way. Terence Davies' The House of Mirth is an astonishingly
realized piece made all the more effective by a surprisingly masterful
lead performance by Gillian Anderson. Everything about this film is
perfect, from the tiniest period detail to the grandly sweeping
emotional arc. Based pretty faithfully on Edith Wharton's first novel,
The House of Mirth concerns a few short years in the life of
Bart, one of literature's enduring society women. Lily lives in a world
where a woman is defined by whom she marries and the process of getting
married almost resembles a hunt, but not a joyful one. Rather, there is
a desperate sense that the woman must find a suitable husband before
gets too old. Still, this desperation stays hidden behind seductive
smiles and fluttered lashes.
Lily is different. She sees through this charade and want nothing more
than to escape her destiny. Knowledge, however, does not exempt her
her life and, as the film progresses and her situation worsens, one
really gets to take in the full measure of her degradation. Lily is
constantly surrounded by sharks, from the treacherous Bertha Dorset
(Laura Linney in a great performance) to the chauvinistic and deceitful
Gus Trenor (Dan Akroyd). A crass Jewish stereotype in the book, Sim
Rosedale (Anthony La Paglia) retains the embarrassing whiff of new money
(a no-no in this turn of the Century social circle) but without the
anti-Semitic overtones of the book (to be fair, writing about the
thoughts of anti-Semitic characters and anti-Semitic writing are not
same thing). Few people are truly honest with Lily. Even Laurence
(Eric Stolz), her most sympathetic ally, never reveals the depth of his
feelings for her. In fact, this is the most devastating relationship in
the story since there are so many instances where Seldon could have
saved Lily from her fate. This same unrequited love story also appears in
year's other great film achievement, Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon, but in that film there is a bitter-sweet element to the
sadness of repression. There is a sense that future generations will
learn how to love. The House of Mirth, however, offers no escape
whatsoever. Society's cruelty towards Lily is totally without regret or
compassion. The ending is just about the most mournful, achingly sad
ending in memory. In fact, the audience in the theater where I first
The House of Mirth was audibly weeping for the last few minutes.
There is no way to be unmoved by Lily's plight.
While the source material may be great, Davies' skillful adaptation
is what really needs to be credited. It can't be easy to tell a story
that was originally written largely through inner monologue. Davies
boldly removed the voiceover entirely (something even Martin Scorsese
didn't have the guts to try with his Wharton adaptation, The Age of
Innocence) and tells the story visually. His gamble pays off: While
some details may get lost without the voiceover, the film ends up
being much more effective. We understand Lily because we're there with
her, not because some disembodied voice tells us what to think. This is
just one of the many bold stylistic decisions Davies made in crafting
this masterpiece. His approach to set design, for instance, is unique.
While the sumptuous sets seem authentic, they are also just minimalist
enough to suggest that there is more detail in the shadows.
From scene to scene the actors, including Terry Kinney, Jodhi May,
embody their literary characters with the perfect amounts of reserve
personality. Some of the performances come from unlikely sources (There
was no reason to expect Akroyd to be as good as he is here) but all are
The video transfer here, while not flawless, is really beautiful. Remi
Adefarasin's cinematography is achingly lyrical. Many scenes, the final
particular, are lit and staged like classic paintings, with bodies,
dressing, and spatial effects like smoke and light composed perfectly.
And yet, the
film is never stagy. It is an astonishingly cinematic feat.
A few specks of dirt have found their way onto the print, but the
rendering of the
images, the textures and colors, is true to the original.
The sound production of The House of Mirth is deceptively
film mostly consists of dialog, the audio is used to help create
atmosphere. The cast
keep their voices at an even middle range throughout so that whenever
Director Terence Davies' commentary track is a strange affair. He's
clearly a very
intelligent, passionate, and articulate guy, but the commentary
is sorely lacking. There are long gaps in between observations and what
he does say
is often uninteresting. He could have spent more time discussing his
Wharton's work and his own decision making process. It would have been
to hope for for him to discuss his
reportedly volatile working relationship with Anderson. Vague
press made it seem like they didn't get along. My understanding is that
demanding work ethic and Anderson's need for encouragement didn't mix.
no way to know, however, what actually happened. In fact, Davies barely
Anderson on the commentary at all, which is especially strange
considering that she
is constantly on screen.
Much more interesting is a sequence of alternate versions of the first
Running around 15 minutes, this segment shows that the kind of cuts
simply for time constraints and mostly amounts to a few lines here
of the material cut would have worked nicely while other moments are
might have disrupted the flow of the finished film. Davies' commentary
is available for
the deleted scenes and helps explain how the changes affected the film.
A trailer for The House of Mirth is available as well as
period films like The Age of Innocence, Little Women,
Remains of the Day, and Sense and Sensibility.
The extras are not as thrilling as the movie, which is fine. One thing
wish could have
been included is part or all of the 1918 film version of Wharton's
novel. Made during
her lifetime, it would have been interesting to contrast the treatment
of the story,
characters, and surroundings in the early silent version with Davies'
version. (A TV
version was made in 1981 as well)
A stunning visual and emotional achievement, The House of Mirth
been too subtle
and restrained for the box-office, but with the availability of the
movie on DVD and
that home viewing allows, more people should get to see it. Between
Davies' masterful direction and Gillian Anderson's
perfect performance there is plenty here to touch anyone.