Director: Terence Davies
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A pretty girl, a pretty girl
Can walk anywhere
All doors open for her
Like a breath of fresh air,
Her beauty, it precedes her
Wrapped in her beauty,
Everywhere, she is welcome
First class on the plane,
Closed door of the club,
All faces turn, all faces turn
And they come alive,
With a desire to protect her…
…The rules do not apply
To people in love.
(lyric from Jerry Harrison, “Man with a Gun”)
The opening scene of The House of Mirth promises a story that fits the above lyrics: the slim figure of a woman holding an umbrella moves serenely along a train platform and out into the streets of Manhattan where she is met by the man she loves. Ah, but life is not a song, and Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) is no ordinary beauty. She is a poor relation looking for an exceedingly good match at the very top of New York society. And since the source of this tale is Edith Wharton, not Jane Austen, the game she plays—is forced to play—will not end well, but rather as it usually does for people who are not making the rules and therefore cannot afford not to follow them to the letter—in squalor.
Lily has purposely missed her train to Belmont, the country estate of her good friends Judy and Augustus “Gus” Trenor (Penny Downie and Dan Ackroyd), so that she can arrange this meeting with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), a young attorney who moves in her social circle. Lawrence asks her to tea at a local shop to pass the time until the next train, but she prefers somewhere more private. He suggests his rooms at the posh Benedick apartments just a short walk away, and Lily disingenuously considers her reputation and then says, “I’ll risk it.” Lily accuses him of avoiding her because, “I have the reputation for being on the hunt for a husband.” Certainly, however, Lawrence does not wish to marry her; they both assume that she must remain on course to marry a very rich man, not one who must work. The tragedy of it is that Lawrence really likes his work, and judging by the look on Lily’s face as she pretends not to care, she would be very happy to share his unrich, but still very comfortable life. It is the straitjacket of social expectations that has pinioned their free will.
On the train, Lily spies another Belmont-bound passenger, Percy Gryce (Pearce Quigley), a very wealthy, straitlaced bachelor for whom she has been angling, and invites him to sit with her. Her flirtation is nearly derailed by Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney), who plops herself down next to Lily and begs her for a cigarette, shocking poor Percy. Percy asks Lily to attend church with him, and she agrees—that is, until Lawrence shows up. She stands Percy up, and he leaves Belmont in a huff the next day. Lily’s unwillingness to make this marriage for money reveals her to be a character of integrity who obeys the dictates of her nature rather than those of society in matters that really count. Being true to herself, which gives her the strength to talk back and resist in more dangerous situations, also leaves her gullible about the duplicitious goings-on around her.
For example, her cousin Grace Julia Stepney (Johdi May), who lives with her and their widowed Aunt Julia Peniston (Eleanor Bron), envies Lily’s beauty and covets everything Lily expects to gain with ease, most especially Lawrence and the bulk of Aunt Julia’s estate on her death. Grace goes to work on her aunt’s opinion of Lily when Lily is seen sitting with Gus Trenor and Jewish social climber Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) at the opera, setting up a confrontation that forces Lily to confess she has gambling debts and causing Aunt Julia to change her will in favor of Grace.
Lily also is victimized by Gus, who gives her money under the pretense of making shrewd investments for her and then expects her to pay him back with sex. Gus says, “You know the rules, Lily. Now you have to pay.” But, of course, Lily is as poor at playing social games as she is at cards. Panicked for her physical well-being as well as her reputation, she nonetheless refuses. “You owe me $9,000,” says Gus in disgust. “I will pay you,” she says as she flees his home.
Worst of all, she crosses Bertha, of whom Judy Trenor tells Lily, “Of course I’m fond of Bertha. It’s safer to be fond of Bertha.” Bertha, who has been cheating on her husband George (Terry Kinney) for years, asks Lily to cruise the Mediterranean on the Dorsets’ massive yacht to keep George occupied while Bertha dallies with a new amour, a replacement for Lawrence, who has thrown her over. Bertha tries to deny what she’s been up to, and Lily unwisely contradicts her and defends herself against Bertha’s insults. Bertha announces during a dinner party on shore that Lily will not be returning to the yacht. The scene takes place in Monte Carlo, but it might as well have been Palermo, with a Mafia don giving a foot soldier the kiss of death. Lily’s fall is slow and painful, and even when an opportunity to be restored to her former position is made plain to her by the refreshingly frank Mr. Rosedale, she refuses it in order to shield Lawrence from scandal.
Edith Wharton was an insider in New York high society and adhered to many of the snobbish, condescending views of her social set. Yet in choosing the title, The House of Mirth, she leaves the reader to complete the adage for themselves (“and madness”) to understand the tragedy of the situation that remains hidden in the shadows of the riches so many of us are dazzled by and covet.
Terence Davies produces a film less witty than Wharton’s book (though he has his moments, particularly in depicting the ridiculous Grace), trying to achieve a certain lightness with very mannered behavior in the first act that misses the mark. What the film lacks in wit, it makes up for in soulfulness. Gillian Anderson is perfect, depicting an ordinary woman who has learned imperfectly what it takes to realize other people’s ambitions for her and who never achieves anything for herself but to maintain her self-respect. Her natural beauty emerges briefly in a human tableau that earns the admiration even of Grace, who comments that she likes Lily best when she carries herself simply. This is the true Lily, Grace and Lawrence agree. When Rosedale runs into Lily, who is ill and addicted to laudanum, he escorts her to her furnished flat in a working-class neighborhood. She is quite unashamed of where she lives and her attempts to earn a living as a milliner. It’s honest, at least. The only thing she confesses to be ashamed of is that she would have been content to live a more humble life with Lawrence and that shame kept her from accepting his profession of love.
The cast of the film is rather eccentrically chosen, with Stoltz and Linney giving me the most trouble as being perhaps too lightweight for their roles as a playboy and a shrew. After repeated viewings, I am finally won over. Linney pulls out all the claws swiftly and economically in Bertha’s quarrel with Lily, and Stoltz and Anderson work well together, even in their more artificial moments. I was delighted to see Elizabeth McGovern, of whom I’ve been fond since her earliest days, as Mrs. Carrie Fisher, a widow who maintains herself as a social secretary.
The film is evocatively lit and breathtakingly beautiful. You can practically feel a pleasurable warmth when Lily is lounging in the garden at Belmont, her eyes fluttering, her frame relaxing. The final image of Lily and Lawrence resembles a Rossetti painting, and fades almost to nothing under the closing credits. When the credits end, we are left with a nearly white screen, a ghostly image of the pair just barely visible. Exquisite.
“I thought that I could manage my own life, but I have been foolish, foolish to the point of being compromised,” Lily says at one point, but what beautiful woman who is encouraged to be an ornament ever really manages her own life? Society compromised her well before her innocent missteps finished the job.