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'House of Mirth, The'

There's no 'Mirth' in Wharton's well-acted society tale

Friday, February 23, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

The dearth of mirth in this doll's house at hand should come as no surprise once we know its architect: Edith Wharton, author of the 1905 book exposing the hollow cruelties of turn-of-the-century New York society. It is but one of many Wharton novels (including her 1920 Pulitzer-winning "Age of Innocence") dealing with the stifling effect of repressed emotions and hypocritical conventions on people of integrity, done in by their superficial peccadilloes.

'The House Of Mirth'

RATING: Unrated but PG-13 in nature for adult themes

STARRING: Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Dan Ayroyd, Eleanor Bron

DIRECTOR: Terence Davies




America's "Belle Epoque" mirrored the worst British social pretensions, as Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) learns to her sorrow. She's at the peak of her "marriageable" allure but in a precarious position when her beauty and allure begin to attract unwelcome male interest and wagging female tongues. You'd have a better shot at crashing the gates of Buckingham than breaking down the invisible walls that insulate this crew from the hoi polloi.

Complex as well as "decorative," Lily always manages to do the right thing at the wrong time, and vice versa. In the degrading search for a rich husband, she blows off the one man who really loves her (Eric Stoltz) and is ostracized for an alleged dalliance with the married man (Dan Aykroyd) who pays off her gambling debts. The only truly moral one of the bunch, she's pilloried for immorality.

"The House of Mirth" is the book that established Wharton's literary reputation. Her prose, for good or ill, was much influenced by Henry James, and its density and tone are essential to her tales. Director Terence Davies bravely resists the temptation to make her language more contemporary, and the result is a rather relentlessly austere Ibsenian dialectic about money and marriage.

In the leading roles, Anderson (Agent Scully from "The X-Files") and Aykroyd ("Saturday Night Live's" co-founding genius comedian) work hard and successfully to kick their TV images. The latter is wonderful as sleazy Mr. Trenor, looking and sounding like Richard Nixon, in nice contrast to the open-faced Stoltz (an alumnus of "Pulp Fiction" and three Cameron Crowe films). Laura Linney is excellent as Lily's fickle friend Bertha, who throws her off her yacht -- and to the wolves -- while the great English character actress Eleanor Bron as Lily's aunt fumes over her niece's debts with ominously oblique lines like "You are a bad color, Lily."

Anthony LaPaglia as Mr. Rosedale (a blatantly anti-Semitic figure, as drawn by Wharton) is strangely sympathetic, even as he plunges a dagger of his own into Lily, who accepts his marriage proposal only after he has withdrawn it. "I don't believe the stories but that doesn't change the situation," he tells her.

The quickest way to be shunned by the "right" people is to be seen with the wrong ones.

Painterly director Terence Davies ("Distant Voices, Still Lives," "The Neon Bible") unfolds his scenes and his characters' psyches with the dark, sumptuous visual technique of John Singer Sargent's portrait paintings of that era, aided by the lush cinematography of Remi Adefarasin (Oscar-nominated for "Elizabeth") and a gorgeous soundtrack full of classical flute and clarinet concertos. He is not averse to long, painful pauses -- though his audience may be.

"House of Mirth" is a scathing look at an earlier generation of that same New York society Fitzgerald nailed in "The Great Gatsby." But, oh, that dearth of mirth! The trek from "satire" of manners to tragedy is lugubrious. One wants to tell them all to lighten up, but one can't. One can only come away, like forlorn lover Stoltz, sadder but wiser at the specter of Lily's disgrace and disintegration.

"We resist the greater temptations," observes Wharton. "It's the little ones that bring us down."

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