Welcome then to The House of Mirth, a period piece which bears little happiness for those within. Or, ultimately, for those in the audience.
It is New York City in 1905, a town full of promise in an era of drawing rooms in which tea is still served every afternoon. On the fringe of society is Miss Lily Bart (Anderson), a brazen vixen who has yet to marry and wears red gowns to the symphony when everyone else has dressed down. She's a bit of a bad girl: She smokes, she skips church, and she's "on the hunt" for a husband. And her bad habits have spilt over into her social life.
She dallies with the lawyer Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) in an apparent affair, but pities him because he actually has to work. Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd, in his best role in decades) also offers his affections, but, alas, he's married. And then there's Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), a kind of Michael Milken for the Industrial Age. None present very good husband choices, which leads Miss Bart to take all kinds of measures to find a mate. Ultimately, through a falling out with her best friend Bertha (Laura Linney) -- for reasons which I still don't understand -- she finds her status in society plummeting, as Bertha singlehandedly engineers her descent -- off camera.
It's a worthy tale of blackmail and backstabbing, but unfortunately it is told in the traditional, corseted, Masterpiece Theatre manner that sadly leaves virtually all of this treachery (and the juiciness) behind the scenes. With a PG rating, there's nary a heaving bosom to behold and only one slap to the face to get your pulse going. One can only be thankful the film isn't narrated a la The Age of Innocence, a film with which The House of Mirth otherwise has much in common. (Both are based on Edith Wharton novels, and it's apparent the former was her better work.)
At the crux of the problem is director Terence Davies, who has structured the film with an unfortunate lack of foresight. A number of unnecessary scenes are loaded on, but this is not counterbalanced by much-needed explanatory scenes that have somehow gone missing. The ultimate effect is to make The House of Mirth a somber experience that drags on and on at a ponderous pace that would be far too slow if you didn't need the time to construct your own plot in its apparent absence.
Much has already been said of Anderson's aplomb with her role, but often the picture feels a bit like Stoltz and Anderson are reading for a play off-Broadway or in their backyard, their lines delivered in a manner that feels smarmy and disingenuous. Not for a second does Anderson look at home in period dress. But at the same time, she has a way of saying "delicious" that simply makes you melt. Overall, the decently apt cast is hardly stellar.
Which leaves us with the theme of our tale. As it turns out, The House of Mirth hasn't aged all that well since it was originally written, which would explain why it hasn't been made into a feature film since 1918. Put simply: Morality at the turn of the last century just doesn't translate well to morality at the turn of this one. Exactly how Miss Bart gets into her predicament is unclear, as Bertha has the worst reputation of the bunch. Why would anyone listen to her? Ultimately, I just didn't buy the story.
But in the end, Miss Bart's sad tale of woe is at least a bit universal. Like so many others, Miss Bart is a victim of her own naïveté, stuck in a world where there truly are no good guys, and yet she relies on others for aid. (Stoltz's character is the closest we are given to a hero, and he's hardly a stand-up chap.) Can unsubstantiated gossip still sink a person? I suppose so, but who can imagine not fighting back?
Run time: 135 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 7th March 2001
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Fresh: 78 Rotten: 18
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Terence Davies
Producer: Olivia Stewart
Screenwriter: Terence Davies
Starring: Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart, Dan Aykroyd as Augustus 'Gus' Trenor, Eleanor Bron as Mrs. Julia Peniston, Lily's Aunt, Terry Kinney as George Dorset, Anthony LaPaglia as Sim Rosedale, Laura Linney as Bertha Dorset, Jodhi May as Grace Julia Stepney, Elizabeth McGovern as Mrs. Carry Fisher, Eric Stoltz as Lawrence Selden