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Sony Pictures Classics
Official Site
Director: Terence Davies
Producer: Olivia Stewart
Writer: Terence Davies, from the novel by Edith Wharton
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Dan Aykroyd, Eleanor Bron, Terry Kinney, Anthony Lapaglia, Laura Linney, Jodhi May, Elizabeth McGovern, Eric Stoltz

Rating: out of 5

It grieves me to only be able to give three stars to THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. I’ve read and re-read and loved Edith Wharton’s novel for years. That’s probably a problem right there. Plus, as one of the few persons who doesn’t watch the “X-Files,” I wasn’t that impressed by Anderson’s much-praised performance. It’s probably also a problem that I’m unfamiliar with her FBI-agent persona.

Terence Davies’ (DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES) very slow movie introduces us immediately to husband-hunter, Lily Bart (Anderson), just as she’s about to make that one false move that will set in train the loss of her reputation. Reputation is about all the currency a genteely poor socialite such as Bart has to trade, and, like many a girl before her, Bart is about to be ruined for love. She risks a visit, alone, to the bachelor apartment of Lawrence Selden (Stoltz; so damn cute), a man she genuinely likes, but whose financial standing rules him out as a marriage partner. Bart is seen leaving Selden’s place by come-lately businessman and social climber, Sim Rosedale (Lapaglia), whose knowledge of this indiscretion puts her under some obligation to countenance him, socially.

Bart hops a train to the country estate of her friends, the Trenors, to stalk a very dull but very rich and very single young man, but cannot bend her mind to the task when Selden shows up for the weekend. These two are fascinating to watch as they make non-declarative declarations of love. And I must admit that, in these scenes, Anderson wonderfully portrays a woman who is tempted by passion and comes very close to abandoning the practicalities, but draws back from the brink.

There are undercurrents in THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. (Bart and Selden’s passion is repeatedly depicted in lighting cigarettes one from the other’s, reminiscent of Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in NOW, VOYAGER.) Occasionally though, things must be stated, and then we get some of the sort of voiceover Martin Scorsese had to resort to in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. I’m beginning to think it may not be possible to do justice to Edith Wharton’s work on the big screen. THE HOUSE OF MIRTH has a standard Wharton theme of a community that doesn’t say things plainly but has a stern, unspoken code, and the ruthless justice meted out to those who transgress. Wharton made plain, in background, the norms of this social tier; Davies painstakingly explains them to the movie’s viewers. And it seems to me that, unerringly, Davies picked the wrong ones to elaborate. For example, when a compromised Bart goes to the opera with Gus Trenor (a delightful Dan Aykroyd) and Rosedale, she wears a red dress and carries a red fan! Yet the movie as a whole conveys little of the frantic racing of Lily’s thoughts or her forced gaiety as she makes her way through society (in some really creepy dresses).

The movie’s set has the requisite plushness and opulence to show us the lifestyle Lily wants to hang on to enough to marry for. But the storytelling doesn’t sufficiently explain these people’s ways of mind, leaving them seeming rather silly for caring about these social shibboleths instead of forging their own paths. Indeed, only the characters who are making their own ways, Carry Fisher (McGovern) and Sim Rosedale, are made to seem sensible to the modern sensibility. As the movie chronicles Bart’s descent from the social register to the working class, it fails to engage sympathies the way the book does. So she has to work for a living! By the end of the novel, I had sobbed my way through a pile of tissues. Not so with this somehow lifeless movie, bookended by title cards, “New York 1905” and “New York 1907.”

—Roxanne Bogucka

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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