Pick of the Week: The House of Mirth
Tagline: "When a woman has the beauty men admire and women envy ... it is wise to tread carefully."
Length: 140 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material
Writer-director Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Rooms) has created a compelling adaptation of Edith Whartons novel The House of Mirth, and Gillian Anderson (Agent Scully on the TV show The X-Files) is brilliant in her portrayal of Lily Bart, the storys central character. In addition to Anderson, the movie has a strong cast that includes Laura Linney (You Can Count on Me), Eric Stoltz, and Anthony LaPaglia. The film is set during the period 1905-1907 in New York City, but since New York has changed so much in the intervening decades, most of the exterior shooting was done in Glasgow, Scotland.
Whartons classic novel of manners, which was published in 1905, was intended to satirize the fashionable New York society in which the author was raised. This was a society that made almost no provision for a woman other than a widow to be economically independent of men. Whartons view of the upper-class social system was a bleak one, and so it seems appropriate that she took her title from Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7, Verse 4: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth."
Davies opens the film by showing a train billowing smoke, from which emerges the silhouette of a corseted female figure wearing a plumed hat and a Belle Epoque dress. The attractive thirty-ish woman, whose ladylike bearing is immediately apparent, is Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson). Lily is waiting for the train that will take her to the country estate of friends, where she will join other guests for a few days visit.
While waiting for her train, Lily whiles away the time with bachelor Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). As they talk, Selden asks the unmarried Lily, "Isnt marriage your vocation? Isnt it what youre all brought up for?" It becomes evident that Lily and Selden are physically attracted to each other, but neither thinks of marriage between them as a possibility because Selden doesnt have enough money. With sadness in her voice, Lily says fondly to Selden, "Love me. But dont tell me so."
We eventually learn that Lily is an orphan who lives with her wealthy aunt, upon whom she is completely reliant for money. The aunt is a dour old woman who likes to have Lily read the obituaries to her while they sip tea. All of Lilys background and training, as well as the rules of her society, dictate that Lily must marry a man who both has money and is high up on the social ladder.
Percy Gryce is timid and dull, but he is wealthy and comes from a proper, old-money family. Lilys chances of enticing Gryce to marry her seem good at first, but he soon backs away, apparently partly because he has learned that she gambles and smokes. Later, Lily is approached by the nouveau riche Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), who tells her, "I have obtained a certain social position, and I have the means to maintain it. Now all I want is a woman--the right woman--to share both with me." But Rosedale has not yet achieved sufficient social status to suit Lily, and she declines his offer of marriage without giving it much consideration.