Published Apr 01, 2001"The House of Mirth" may be one of the most emotionally harrowing movies since "Breaking the Waves," and it's certainly one of the best movies of the year (apparently it was eligible for the Oscars last year, but was totally overlooked). I'd refer to it as a costume drama (it's based on the novel by Edith Wharton) but it deftly transcends that limiting sub-category. While most people go to Merchant-Ivory movies because they love the costumes and they vaguely wish they could spend their afternoons having tea with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, "The House of Mirth" is a completely different story. The surfaces of the film are lively and evocative (it was shot by Remi Adefarasini, who also brought the earthy details of Shekar Kapur's "Elizabeth" to life), but they don't dominate the content of the film, which, when you get right down to it, is the purest tragedy.
Gillian Anderson plays Lily Bart, a single woman in her twenties (it's New York in 1907, so being unattached is a bit unseemly, if not a scandal waiting to happen), and right from her first scene, maybe even her first line, you know her story intuitively. She's got a stronger sense of character than her times will allow for, and her lack of a husband is due to a combination of pride, fussy standards, and a pure desire to play the field and keep her options open. But beneath her glib repartee there's a lurking insecurity at play. She knows she's worn out her welcome in many social circles, and that her options may be dwindling as she bides her time.
The one man in her life who might be a match for her is a smart, egocentric lawyer named Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz), but they've coyly flirted with each other for so long that their sexual tension has morphed into a lingering mistrust, and an inability to consummate their relationship on anything but a verbal level. But Lily's future becomes inexorably compromised by more than just unrequited love. A back-stabbing acquaintance, played by Laura Linney, accuses her of having an affair, and an opportunistic rogue, played by Dan Ackroyd, blackmails Lily for her entire fortune when she, quite literally, refuses to be his whore. As her future becomes bleaker, and her means begin to dwindle, it becomes clear that Lily's steadfast moral fibre may be her ultimate undoing.
"The House of Mirth" is a remarkably sustained piece of work. The dialogue (Terence Davies wrote as well as directed), is pitched at a very "arch" level characters rarely say exactly what they mean, but their true feelings and motivations, as complicated and compromised as they might be, are always crystal clear. Then there are the scenes in which they actually do say what they mean, and those scenes burn themselves onto the screen like an acetylene torch. When Lily tries to retroactively accept an offer of marriage from well-heeled Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) (an offer that she had formerly refused), he bluntly informs her that, although he could see himself falling in love with her, he won't accept the diminished social status that she will bring to his good name.
There are a lot of things about this movie that surprised me. The cast is full of under-appreciated actors (Stoltz, LaPaglia, Terry Kinney, Jodhi May) who each raise the bar to such a level that they surely won't be under-appreciated any longer. And for his part, Terence Davies has finally made a movie that lives up to his critical notoriety (he was praised up and down for the turgid "Distant Voices, Still Lives"). I wasn't surprised by the breathtaking performance by Gillian Anderson, however (anyone who saw "Playing By Heart" knows how good she really is). She has a scene of emotional breakdown near the end that will wring the tears out of you like a wet dish-rag.