She's come undone

The haves and the have-nots have at it in Terence Davies' adaptation of Edith Wharton's masterpiece.

AS THE EXQUISITE Lily Bart strides into The House of Mirth through billowing train smoke, some romantics may think of another railway station and the beautiful, doomed Anna Karenina. But this is New York in 1905, not 1870s St. Petersburg, and after watching Gillian Anderson's fine, insolent drawl of a walk, her Lily seems impervious to harm, even from the dangerous beauties and barons of the New York social register.

The House of Mirth

written and directed by Terence Davies with Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Laura Linney, and Anthony LaPaglia opens January 19 at Seven Gables

It's clearly not Grand Central Station, but from this first, arresting entrance there is the sense that director-screenwriter Terence Davies has seen straight to the heart of Edith Wharton's fine-boned social tragedy. (Thrift, thrift: The film was financed and shot in Scotland and looks it. The effect is dislocating, but not fatal.)

What Wharton understood, firsthand, was that no woman could flaunt the conventions of her world, any more than she could in Tolstoy's day—especially not a woman like Lily, with no money of her own. But Lily's singular dilemma begins with her sense of propriety: Though they will certainly ruin her, she cannot let go of her principles.

Her struggle is made hot and poignant by Anderson, who blends eroticism, subtlety, and elegance; by the icy brilliance of the supporting cast (particularly Laura Linney); and by Davies' own tough-mindedness. In Wharton's world, he has said, "The gloves are off and there's blood on the walls."

Even by today's standards, that social warfare is breathtaking. Davies stages one glittering exchange between Lily and a friend, whom she catches in a touch of adultery on a yacht, with simple white canvas behind them. Although words serve as the only weapons, by the scene's end there is a real victim, and the canvas seems almost blood-splattered.

Lily has no illusions about her situation: An orphan, she lives by the generosity of her rich, straitlaced dragon of an aunt (Eleanor Bron), who considers a game of bridge on Sunday a sin. Still, Mrs. Peniston's old money and social standing have opened a door for her niece, and Lily glides into the world of the very rich, complete with its seductions and snares.

IT'S THE SAME WORLD then as now: The shelf life of a beauty is cruelly short, even one with wit and a talent for genuine friendships. At 29, Lily knows "she's been about too long" and that she should get down to the real business of a woman of her class: marrying well.

But who? Lily's own standards have drastically narrowed the list; the boring or the vulgar haven't a chance. In almost every respect Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) might be an ideal choice. (Stoltz, passive down to his very DNA, is the perfect Selden.) He may have Lily's heart, but as a lawyer he's only well-off, not rich. What Lily doesn't know is that her friend, the very married Bertha Dorset (Linney), considers Selden her own property.

Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) would be delighted to marry Lily and says so. His real-estate speculation will soon give him more money than most of the bankers around him—but to be bought by this outsider for her perch in society? Unthinkable. (By casting the soft-cored LaPaglia, Davies minimizes Wharton's famous streak of anti-Semitism.)

As her situation worsens, Lily holds a compromising set of letters that will save her, but her own set of standards will not permit her to use them. Her honor, bright though it may be, is her undoing.

To those who think of the impeccable Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Long Day Closes) as a director without (to put it gently) a strong narrative thrust, the through line of The House of Mirth will be a revelation. It becomes, as one Wharton biographer wrote, "like the hunt of a beautiful doe by a pack of hounds," and, in Davies' hands, no less wrenching.

 
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