House of mirrors
Adaptation of classic Edith Wharton novel is fresh and well furnished
“I can’t make you out” is the watchword for The House of Mirth on film. Terence Davies’ superb adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic novel has the look of a sumptuous period piece in line with recent well-furnished adaptations of Jane Austen and Henry James. But this smoldering drama is no wallow in upscale décor; brilliant but flawed character is its largest and subtlest subject.
The costumes and the period decor and the elegant manners are all in place, as is Wharton’s scathing analysis of a society in which monetary wealth and personal honor are locked in a poisonous embrace (the setting is the East Coast upper classes, circa 1905). But the real action and interest in this case are in the witty interplay and mixed motives of several exceptional people, each of whom is doomed in part by apparent virtues.
Foremost among these are Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), Wharton’s quasi-tragic heroine, and Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), the young woman’s loving but curiously reluctant friend. Curious reluctance is an issue of some consequence with Lily herself, and part of the film’s brilliance comes of its intricate sense of stifling Victorian conventions as only a part of the problem with this couple and others. Indeed, for all its period atmosphere The House of Mirth is startlingly modern and complex in its character psychology.
One measure of the film’s surprising freshness is that it gets fine, against-the-grain performances out of even its most familiar cast members. Anderson is excellent and miles away from her X-Files persona. Stoltz and Dan Aykroyd are both very good as much more repressed characters than we’re used to seeing them play. Laura Linney neatly conveys the vitriol behind her character’s sunshine smile, and Anthony LaPaglia is very fine as a bull of a man with an astonishingly delicate touch.
The British Davies (creator of the brilliantly evocative Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes) handles the story’s sumptuous settings with elegant, incisive restraint and avoids the occasionally overblown spectacle of Martin Scorsese’s Wharton adaptation, The Age of Innocence. Better yet, he gives the film a slow, stately pace that proves just right for its devastatingly intimate study of illusions, both self-perpetuated and externally imposed, and of good intentions and disingenuousness.