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HOUSE OF MIRTH, THE(director/writer: Terence Davies; screenwriter: from the book by Edith Wharton; cinematographer: Remi Adefarasin; editor: Michael Parker; music: Adrian Johnston; cast: Gillian Anderson (Lily Bart), Eric Stoltz (Lawrence Selden), Dan Aykroyd (Gus Trenor), Eleanor Bron (Mrs. Julia Peniston), Terry Kinney (George Dorset), Anthony LaPaglia (Sim Rosedale), Laura Linney (Bertha Dorset), Jodhi May (Grace Stepney), Elizabeth McGovern (Carry Fisher), Judy Trenor (Penny Downie), Pearce Quigley (Percy Gryce), Helen Coker (Evie Van Osburgh), Mary MacLeod (Mrs. Haffen); Runtime: 145; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Olivia Stewart; Sony Pictures Classics; 2000-UK)
“It’s a work of great artistry and integrity…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Terence Davies’ (“Distant Voices. Still Lives“/”The Long Day Closes“/”The Neon Bible“) brilliantly winning “The House of Mirth” is based on the New York City born Edith Wharton’s splendid novel from 1905 about a doomed young woman who has fallen from the ranks of high society and must learn how to survive on her own. As a last resort, she chooses martyrdom. The English director uses a stylized formal narrative to make the past ring true and to tell the striking redhead Lily Bart’s (Gillian Anderson) heartbreaking story, which is meant to be a tearjerker and by the conclusion the film succeeds in making even grown men feel unashamed at sobbing at her cruel fate. The heroine will end up being deceived or compromised by all of her so-called society friends, and will become resigned to losing everything but her dignity.

“Mirth” is set in the Gilded Age of 1905 New York City (but filmed in Glasgow), where high society lives by the Victorian moral code and the lustful ones sneak in their pleasures under great duress at the risk of upsetting their puritanical peers and losing their status in society if caught. Lily is an attractive, personable, naive, parasitic, materialistic, and ambitious woman in her late twenties whose aim is to marry someone very rich. Her best friend and confidante is Judy Trenor (Penny Downie), who encourages her efforts. Her husband Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd) is a wealthy financier, who has an eye for making deals and making sure he gets what’s best for him. Lily rejects her handsome bachelor society lawyer friend Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) not because she isn’t attracted to him, but because like her he’s not rich. She also notes that he has a cowardly nature–an unwillingness to give up his shallow lifestyle. He has affairs with many of the married society women. She learns of one affair through the love letters written by Bertha, that the maid in Selden’s hotel sells her.

The society elite live in splendid stone mansions and are prone to conversing in whispers and dropping gossipy innuendos in their stilted conversations over tea. The rich socialites look like shadowy figures in the elegant painting of a Sargent, as they act out their overstated lives in their well-kept but icy drawing rooms. Everyone seems to be a game player, and Lily also seems to be a player and a determined woman who was raised to get what she wants. But she turns out to be a poor player, who has no head for business or in making deals that will benefit her. But she can’t resist the upper crust lifestyle, their treks to their summerhouses in Long Island and luxury vacation cruises to Europe, their richly designed clothes, their mansions, the exciting nightlife of attending play openings and operas, and of also attending society parties and balls and dinner gatherings. Her only problem is that she can’t afford to travel in these circles, as she’s reduced to living off a small income provided by her wealthy, bitter, snooty and disapproving elderly Aunt Julia Peniston (Bron). Lily lives in her aunt’s mansion and is expected to inherit her estate, but in the meantime she has incurred debts by gambling on card games such as bridge, a game she doesn’t enjoy but plays to conform. Aunt Julia refuses to pay off such illicit debts incurred, and when she dies in 1906 she unexpectedly leaves the estate to her other niece, Grace Stepney (Jodhi May), who is described by Lily as being as reliable as a mutton roast.

The first big mistake Lily makes in her downward spiral, which ends in abject poverty, is confide in Gus as a financial adviser. He provides her with the money needed in the guise of making some lucrative business investments for her, but he now expects payback in the form of making her his mistress. This disappointment in human nature, her resistance to being compromised because of her high principles, and her inability to judge others and play their games, leads her on a spiritual journey of no return despite knowing how much she hates to give up the society lifestyle and how useless and unskilled she is in making her own way in the world.

Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) is a wealthy bachelor upstart businessman who has not been fully accepted into the upper crust circles, but his increasing wealth is opening up new doors. He is willing to marry Lily even though she doesn’t love him, as he sees this as a means of society fully accepting him. Sim proposes an arranged marriage with an unwritten contract where he foots all the expenses and she appears by his side as his contented trophy wife at all social functions. Davies successfully alters Rosedale from being the pushy Jew he was in Wharton’s novel, by instead blurring his religious affiliations. This removes the hint of anti-Semitism that Wharton might have been guilty of in the novel.

Lily is caught in her own mindset traps as well as the traps society sets, as it now becomes inevitable that she’s on her way to economic ruin and social damnation. Stubbornly, she refuses to use the weapons others in her class would have; such as, blackmail and deceit. Her doom becomes certain after her falling out with the dangerous viper Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney), who invited her for a yacht voyage on the Mediterranean following Aunt Julia’s booting her out of the mansion. Bertha uses her to dupe her timid and overly polite husband George (Kinney) over the adulterous affair she’s having, while hubby says he doesn’t know what to do without concrete proof. Bertha does her wronged woman act in such a cool and calculated manner, that it results in Lily’s banishment from high society. Linney’s performance is as smooth as silk, and matches the outstanding performance by the ill-fated Gillian Anderson. Her ethereal performance makes it seem as if she’s walking on air and is more interested in holding onto her social graces than in keeping her balance as she gradually falls off the face of the earth. There is also the surprisingly mean-spirited swinish performance by Dan Aykroyd — a serious performance I didn’t think the former comedian was capable of. Eric Stoltz adds more luster to the ensemble cast. He has a fascination toward Lily but without offering any commitment, in a role that he blandly plays without fault as he realizes when it’s too late the kind of woman he has lost.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

The most Catholic of current directors, Davies, ends the heroine’s worldly struggle with the solemnity reserved for a religious figure. She gains our sympathy even though we know she followed this saintly path despite realizing she wasn’t cut out to be a saint and could have ended her tragedy at any time by just thinking things through and becoming more cunning. But that was not in the cards, as also doing piecework millinery wasn’t either her cup of tea. In her impoverished New York City tenement apartment in 1907 she commits suicide, and Davies’ camera scans the silent room and focuses in on her dead body lying in bed and a surrounding glow that frames the shot to make it look like a Renaissance painting. She has paid back her $9,000 debt to Gus, even though she really didn’t have to, from the meager amount Aunt Julia’s will left her and is now free of all debts to high society and to those society jackals who never appreciated her good nature. Her only true friend was Carry Fisher (Elizabeth McGovern), someone of a more modest status and means.

“The House of Mirth” is an emotionally moving and timeless romantic melodrama that in its sparseness has not one false note. It exposes the hypocrisies of the age and society’s reliance on appearance and status as being the measuring stick of a person’s worth. To Davies’ credit, he caught the moral complexities of Wharton’s novel, a rage against the injustices of women during that period, and has brought to the screen a work that fully captures the ironies and heated tone that Wharton intended. It’s a work of great artistry and integrity, one of the best period piece dramas about the upper-classes that covers a time when a woman’s livelihood depended on a good marriage.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”