- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2001

The works of certain famous writers — notably E.M. Forster, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen — have been adapted for the screen with gratifying devotion.

The only august figure who seems to have hit a consistently rough patch is Henry James, who once inspired such memorable adaptations as "The Heiress" and "The Innocents" but suffered bumpy rides during the 1990s with "The Portrait of a Lady," "Washington Square" and "Wings of the Dove." (A James Ivory version of "The Golden Bowl" remains in the wings, awaiting a distributor.)

Edith Wharton — James' closest literary counterpart, not to mention his friend and occasional traveling companion — was rediscovered with commendable fidelity in 1993 movie versions of "The Age of Innocence" and "Ethan Frome." Now her first great novel, "The House of Mirth," has emerged as a belated, classy attraction from 2000, booked exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington.

Published to considerable success in 1905, Wharton's edifying and haunting book is an account of the misfortune that ensnares a beautiful young woman. Lily Bart, the protagonist, proves to be too negligent and scrupulous to secure a wealthy match in the marriage market of fashionable New York society.

The movie "Mirth" has been put together by obscure English filmmaker Terence Davies. Scarcely a newcomer at age 55, Mr. Davies has been overspecialized. He has completed only three previous features, all autobiographical.

The only one I've seen, "Distant Voices, Distant Lives," was maddeningly affected and bleak. Although bleak affectations have not vanished from the Davies sensibility as he pays his respects to Wharton's works, his response to the source material is admirably sincere and evocative. The lower-middle-class self-consciousness and narrowness that made "Distant Voices" an ordeal have been replaced by an imaginative projection into the luxurious, cosmopolitan, booby-trapped society the author knew and deplored.

Mr. Davies probably was working on a fraction of the budget available to Martin Scorsese for "The Age of Innocence," and the entire production was shot in and near Glasgow, Scotland. Nevertheless, the Davies simulation of turn-of-the-century New York, augmented by a fateful excursion to the Riviera, reflects the resourcefulness and expertise of British craftsmen. They get a lot of practice doing Victorian and Edwardian settings and may have no peers when it comes to faking opulence on modest budgets.

The movie also is authenticated rather splendidly by its leading lady, Gillian Anderson of "The X-Files" renown. Miss Anderson's striking face and hair color have been a reliable pictorial magnet for the small screen. Now they command attention for two absorbing hours on the big screen.

A handsome, sensitive and stirring focus of desire and pathos, Miss Anderson fills this elevated but vulnerable and demanding bill with more believability and poignancy than one reasonably could expect.

To some extent, the story of Lily's failure to save herself within a privileged social milieu churns you up because you keep expecting a rescue to be arranged.

At least two men can salvage Lily, who blunders into social disgrace and disinheritance but possesses a stubborn moral integrity that breaks your heart.

The timing and generosity of the potential Galahads leave much to be desired. A lawyer named Lawrence Selden (embodied with too much diffidence by Eric Stoltz), who is a disenchanted member of the same class that nurtures and then discards Lily, is her self-evident soul mate. Yet he never can permit his smoldering desire for her to result in a concrete proposal.

The speculator Sim Rosedale, smartly portrayed by Anthony LaPaglia, is a Jew who aspires to overwhelm fashionable society with the aid of a brilliantly decorative wife. These aims remain too mercenary to embrace Lily as a conjugal prize after she is set up for a fall by a treacherous society friend, Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney in an impeccably disarming, sinister portrayal).

Nevertheless, Rosedale's sincere regret and bad conscience are more sympathetic consequences of failed gallantry than Selden's overfastidious pride and renunciation. The thwarted romance between Lily and Selden has curious affinities with the troubled but successful match of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice." The ideal mates of "The House of Mirth" never find a way of surmounting their pride and prejudice, leaving readers to eat their hearts out.

Mr. Davies is at his most effective in close domestic and social quarters. He concentrates on intimate encounters that reproduce Wharton's dialogue with optimum fidelity. If I'm not mistaken, he also has invented some clever exchanges and barbs, including one casual remark that has particularly cruel implications for Lily: "Engagements are made to be broken."

The missed bets and miscalculations are kept to a minimum, although some of the letdowns are certain to give readers a sinking feeling.

Mr. Davies fails to authenticate the sensation Lily creates as the most desirable participant in an evening of tableaux vivant. To blow this kind of visual opportunity seems almost absurd, but Mr. Davies' tendencies incline toward the lugubrious and somber rather than the vivacious and dazzling. Anyway, Miss Anderson is draped in a cumbersome manner that appears to contradict the electrifying impact of her character's pose in the novel.

The movie also gives little sense of the social triumph Lily has enjoyed as a preamble to treachery during the Riviera episode. Two minor characters are merged in a way that enhances stock villainy while robbing the final stages of the plot of social and sentimental nuance.

Performances also are inconsistent. You want to recast certain players on sight, especially the two actresses playing Lily's stern relatives. Other choices, notably Miss Linney as Bertha, Elizabeth McGovern as the helpful divorcee Carry Fisher and Penny Downie as the socialite Judy Trenor, seem so astute that you're sorry they don't have more scenes.

Emotionally, the movie remains on solid ground with Miss Anderson. Even when the continuity falters, the prospect of her ultimate confrontations with Mr. LaPaglia, Mr. Stoltz and a harsh fate argue for patience.

When the conclusive episodes are enacted, she gives them an irresistible pang, marred only by the director's need to embalm the fade-out by belaboring a mournful composition. If a flawless movie version of "House of Mirth" waits to be realized in another decade or so, I'll be glad to see it. In the meantime, Miss Anderson will more than suffice.{*}{*}{*}TITLE: "The House of Mirth"RATING: PG (adult subject matter, but fidelity to a vintage novel precludes objectionable language or depiction)CREDITS: Directed by Terence Davies. Screenplay by Mr. Davies, based on the novel by Edith Wharton. Cinematography by Remi Adefarasin. Production design by Don Taylor. Costume design by Monica Howe. Hair and makeup by Jan Harrison Shell, and musical supervision by Adrian Johnston.RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide