House Of Mirth

Movie Review by Lisa Henshall

Starring: Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Dan Aykroyd
Director: Terrence Davies

This film is one of the best adaptations of an Edith Wharton novel ever made. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, in certain places, Terence Davies’ film actually improves on the novel; allowing us an even deeper understanding of the slow and harrowing fall from grace, experienced by the story’s heroine, Lily Bart (played magnificently by Gillian Anderson). Wharton’s acid view of New York society’s leisure classes is exquisitely played out in Davies’ film (in my opinion, superior to Scorsese’s AGE OF INNOCENCE), helped by an outstanding cast. Of special note are Gillian Anderson, whose portrayal of Lily proves she has the depth to play characters far more complex than Scully; and Laura Linney whose manipulative, self-serving and cruel Bertha Dorset, is played with a relish Bette Davis would be proud of.

HOUSE OF MIRTH follows the fall from grace of Lily Bart, a young socialite, in love with Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stolz, as dashing as ever), but determined to marry money in order to secure a better position in society. However, after a ‘perceived’ indiscretion involving Gus Trenor (Dan Ackroyd) leaves her unable to repay a debt, one by one her friends abandon her or are unable to assist her without compromising her situation further. Even as she falls to the bottom of society’s ladder, she desperately clings to her self-esteem and refuses to use letters in her possession in order to regain her standing among her pears – even though they prove that wealthy, married Bertha Dorset had an affair with Lawrence Seldon in the recent past.

Unlike many period dramas, it was a pleasant surprise to find that Davies seems to have deliberately avoided wallowing in the adulation of the costumes and customs of the time, which normally inhibit a film like this. That’s not to say there aren’t the period details you’d expect, just that Davies is more interested in the characters than what they are wearing. The costumes and sets are beautiful and give a real sense of the period, but don’t overwhelm the storyline. The main reason the film strikes a chord, even now in the year 2000, is Lily Bart’s wish to be independent and her desperate need to be in control of her own destiny even as her world crumbles around her.

6 out of 6 stars