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Movie Review

House of Mirth

MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material

Reviewed by: Dr. Kenneth R. Morefield

Better than Average
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Teen to Adult
Drama, Romance
2 hr. 20 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
Relevant Issues
Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd in “House of Mirth”
Featuring: Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Dan Aykroyd, Eleanor Bron, Terry Kinney
Director: Terence Davies
Producer: Olivia Stewart
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) negotiates the expectations, spoken and unspoken, of turn of the century New York society in “House of Mirth”. She searches for a way to maintain both happiness and comfort in the face of increasingly narrower personal choices. Rated PG for adult situations and inferences.

Gillian Anderson in “House of Mirth” Edith Wharton’s underappreciated masterpiece gets the full screen treatment in this art house release. Despite garnering strong reviews (one major entertainment magazine had it listed among its top two films of the year), “House of Mirth” has been slow to reach wide release. The production values are wonderful, with the photography and acting hitting just the right marks. Why then did this movie leave me so strangely cold? Wharton’s novel game at the tale end of American Literary Naturalism, was influenced by it and, arguably, participates in it. Naturalism was a literary style or movement undergirded by a belief in various forms of determinism, and it is this foundation that both gives the film its interest and robs it of its power. Certainly the most interesting parts of the film consist in watching an individual try to exercise free choice in an environment which, despite its luxuriant surface, is highly restrictive. But we live in an age that values and believes in personal freedom, so Lily’s lament that she is not only a “useless” person but has been trained to be one, loses much of its resonance.

There is a thread of literary realism in the novel as well, though. The decline and fall structure centers around Lily’s loss of material status, but much like Silas Lapham in the Howells novel, she grows morally by refusing to allow her material circumstances to lead to a key moral compromise. Still while the realists (at least some of them) saw a deliverance through moral perseverance, the naturalists see such gestures as futile, and so Lily’s refusal to blackmail a key rival who has injured her reputation cannot be seen as evidence of a higher moral consciousness or as leading to a future deliverance. It does, to be sure, add a layer of pathos over her deterioration, but one senses as though Wharton feels as though the hope provided by selling out was a false one anyway. Lily is destined to fail and the fact that she is able to choose one avenue of failure over another does not lessen the air of fatal resignation that hangs over the latter half of the film.

I have already mentioned that the photography is wonderful in the film. The acting is strong but not outstanding. Anderson does a fair job of making you forget Agent Scully from the “X-Files” and Dan Ackroyd and Laura Linney are strong in support playing friends of Lily’s who turn out to have hidden streaks of cruelty. Much of the criticism surrounding the film has focused on Eric Stoltz as Lily’s love interest Lawrence Selden. Stoltz does seem miscast, but in his defense the film cannot decide whether it ultimately wants to make him a co-victim (like Lily unable to fly in the face of societal expectations despite his love for her) or a co-conspirator (like Gus and Bertha willing to use Lily for his enjoyment but unwilling to stand by her when it is not expedient). Fans of the book may balk at the casting of Anthony LaPaglia as Sim Rosedale, a character whose Jewish identity is a much emphasized part of the book. The film eliminates much of the book’s anti-Semitism through this casting, but it also makes Lily’s rejection of Sim seem more a matter of personal dislike rather than racial disgust instilled by a racist society.

There is much to praise in Terence Davies’s film, but like films based on naturalist or realist novels, the excellence seems more technical than emotional, leading to an artistic appreciation of a finely drawn character or situation instead of a moving experience. “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoner, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of despair” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

My Grade: B+

Viewer Comments
Being a favorite of the critics and having heard much upon Gillian Anderson’s performance, I was anticipating rather too much going into this production. I have since decided that overall I always digress upon the self-proclaimed critics’ opinions and believe that Anderson’s acting leaves something to be desired. The film is very beautiful to look at as far as costuming goes, but that is about the extent of its depth. Extravagant costumes cannot cover the poor character development and stinting acting. Anderson stumbles along for about an hour in her role, remaining entirely unconvincing in her part until the later half. Many of the other actors also leave much to be desired and the production’s decision to film much of the story in darkened interiors leaves one with the feeling of being cheated out of late Victorian-era architecture. Lilly does do the morally correct thing in not blackmailing someone, but the film leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The two hours would have been better spent on “An Ideal Husband”. Ideally, the producers might have chosen a more convincing and formidable actress in the role, someone like Kate Winslet if they truly wanted to pull heartstrings. For now, it’s a depressing, if fairly vulnerable film, that opens itself up to ridicule. You will either like it or hate it; unfortunately there is no in-between.
My Ratings: [Better than Average / 3½]
Charity Bishop, age 18
Edith Wharton was an intelligent, literate author. No wonder, then, that this adaptation of her novel is an intelligent, literate film. The characters constantly say one thing and mean another. To be able to portray the subtext takes fine acting and Gillian Anderson is brilliant in the role of Lily Bart. Watching her decline is painful, but one can’t help but be impressed with Anderson’s ability to convey it. Be warned: the characters are, for the most part, vile and deceitful. There is no physical violence in this film, but the emotional violence is extreme. The director, Terence Davies, is an impressive visualist (I would also recommend his The Long Day Closes). This movie is beautifully filmed and the scenery and costumes are gorgeous. The story unfolds at a slow pace but I was never bored. It is a deep film about shallow people with shallow relationships. The dialogue is clever and sharp. No chases or dramatic escapes or special effects here. Just good story-telling. There is a real subtleness to this film that demands the audience’s close attention. My only complaint about the film is this: the hopelessness of it might be a bit overwhelming for some.
My Ratings: [Better than Average / 4]
—Mary Lou, age 46