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"The House of Mirth": A Movie Review

By Tom Sime, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX – Don't be fooled by the title "The House of Mirth." It's been a cruel joke for nearly a century. Edith Wharton's 1905 novel of social duplicity and economic ruin in upper-crust New York has now made it to the screen, and it's as bleak as it can be. Fans of the TV series "X-Files" may flock to see the show's star, Gillian Anderson, decked out in period costumes and flouncing through lavish ballrooms and country estates. But Director Terence Davies had never heard of "X-Files" and cast Anderson for her look, which he said comes straight out of a John Singer Sargent painting. And he's right.

After the hideous but successful big-screen version of "X-Files," it's a revelation to see Anderson here in the role of Lily Bart, a glamorous, eligible New York socialite whose prospects for a good marriage dissolve before our eyes. She's a woman born in the wrong time by about 20 years; she has a mind of her own, which is not yet fashionable, and she has principles, which are pass?.

Lily loves a lawyer of modest means played by Eric Stoltz. But all her upbringing has aimed her at a munificent match. With gambling debts looming, she borrows money from a businessman played by Dan Aykroyd. He then expects her to become his mistress, and, when she refuses, Lily gains a powerful enemy. Then she's brought along on a Mediterranean cruise by her seeming friend Bertha Dorset, played by sweet-faced Laura Linney. But Bertha's real reason for inviting Lily along is to distract her husband while she, Bertha, carries on with her lover. And when Lily sees what's going on, Bertha turns the tables on her.

The social machinations of this dreadful bunch soon isolate Lily and estrange her from her wealthy aunt, played by the magnificently-aged 1960s icon Eleanor Bron. Lily, an orphan, depends on her aunt for money, and when she's cast aside, she sinks into poverty and opium addiction. It's a downfall that's devastating to watch and reminds us how vulnerable these seemingly untouchable society women actually were, and perhaps still are.

Davies' screen adaptation is ice-cold and sometimes aggravatingly stiff. Its low budget shows in a cramped, claustrophobic vision of New York that was actually shot in Glasgow, Scotland. But while the supporting players remain at a distance, Ms. Anderson infuses the narrative with heat and humanity; we never lose sense of the wonderful success Lily might have been if she'd been born perhaps a little closer to where we are. Instead, she's snuffed out in a slum, and it's a measure of the film's impact that even though it's on the long side, "The House of Mirth" takes a lot longer to recover from than it does to watch.