Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, brilliantly captured the fashionable world of turn-of-the century society in New York. It was a world where social ambition and carefully proscribed class divisions prevailed. But under the opulent trappings, tidy manners and frivolous concerns Wharton so uncannily described, there lurked a darker world where greed, gossip and a stern moral code invariably led to tragedy.
Women fared particularly badly in this world. For Wharton’s women, who found themselves entrapped in the claustrophobic vise of convention, there could be no happy endings. Longing, passion and desire were fated to remain unfulfilled. Wharton’s explorations of the plight of women show what happened when the only option afforded them was marriage. A century later, it’s hard to relate to such dilemmas, which presents a special challenge to filmmakers who would adapt Wharton for a modern audience. Martin Scorsese succeeded wonderfully with his sublime 1993 screen adaptation of The Age of Innocence, the novel for which Wharton won the Pulitzer. Scorsese so beautifully captured all the thwarted yearning, passion and desire of those characters that their pain still has resonance.
Now, Terence Davies brings Wharton’s The House of Mirth to the screen in an elegant—though largely passionless—adaptation. He handles the tragedy of Lily Bart with the same care and precision as Wharton’s novel, but the passion is so muted that it never elicits much of an emotional response. Davies’ The House of Mirth is an admirable costume drama, but its formality never lets you forget what you’re watching. The precise dialogue, mannered performances and leisurely pace may mirror the era they depict, but they get in the way of a true emotional connection. Although beautifully presented, Davies’ film feels staged. The desperation and anger under those meticulously measured exteriors barely break through. Even the final tragic scene, though incredibly sad, is not devastating.
The heroine, Lily Bart, is a proud, beautiful and frivolous young woman whose naivete, carelessness and misplaced trust land her in the compromising situations that eventually lead to her destruction. From the film’s opening scene, with its melancholy score, we know Lily is headed for a tragic end. The book’s title, by the way, comes from a verse in Ecclesiastes: “The heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Yes, Lily Bart is foolish and imprudent, as she herself realizes. But she also has an inherent intelligence, a stubborn pride and an unexpected integrity. True to her social circle, however, she can’t say what she really thinks or feels.
While Gillian Anderson’s elegant portrayal of the complex Lily Bart is a solid piece of acting, there’s an emotional aloofness that keeps you from completely embracing or sympathizing with her character. Lily is undone by accepting—innocently enough—invitations to a bachelor’s apartment; to the opera with a married man whose wife is out of town; and to a cruise with a friend whose husband she is meant to distract. Each acceptance drags her further into scandal. Then there are her bad investments and gambling debts, which put her in a financially precarious position and lead her to accept loans that only further tarnish her reputation.
A beautiful, unmarried woman signals trouble in proper society. Lily is not rich, but life is expensive in her circles. Her only alternative, as her friends constantly remind her, is to marry right away. How else does she protect herself? “Isn’t marriage what you’re brought up for?” asks Lawrence Selden, the attractive young attorney. Lily has many admirers and Selden predicts she’ll marry someone very rich, though she sees that as a dark option. She’s more modern in her sensibilities. She smokes, she gambles, she hates to be thought of as priggish and she eschews marriage for the sake of a fortune.
Eric Stoltz is likable enough as Lawrence Selden, the man who could have given Lily Bart a happy ending but fails her. He and Lily are obviously attracted to each other. Yet they play an elaborate game that prevents them from revealing their real feelings. They are both cowards
Lily does have many admirers, including the nouveau riche Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), whose fortune earns him a place in society. A blunt fellow, he makes no bones about his proposal. It’s a simple business transaction: She can marry him, pay off her debts and indulge her “fondness for luxury and amusement.” When her reputation becomes a social liability, however, he amends his offer. She must be “rehabilitated socially” before marriage is an option.
Lily Bart is more principled than that. Though rendered penniless and shunned by society, she refuses to do the one thing that would redeem her socially and financially. Even though Lily has been used and destroyed by mercenary “friends,” she refuses to resort to their tactics. She acknowledges that she was careless and imprudent with money and that she was foolish to the point of being compromised.
An admirable woman, Lily insists on paying her own debts and her own way. She hardly seems to deserve her final fate. But that’s Wharton’s point, and one that filmmaker Terence Davies drives home in his subtle period drama. The world of wealth and class in which Lily is enmeshed is not only a frivolous house of mirth, but also vile and cruel. Lily must be sacrificed to make that point. In the end, you can’t help but feel sorry for her. Society has crushed her. A sad tale indeed.
The House of Mirth (PG) HHH Directed by Terence Davies. Starring Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz.