Hothouse Flower

Gillian Anderson Blooms in Edith Wharton’s Tragedy of Manners

Lily Bart, the beautiful socialite destroyed by a ruthless hierarchical machinery in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, remains one of modern literature's most famously complicated tragic heroines. Lily's contradictions are central to the pathos of her plight—scapegoated and out-manipulated by the rapacious blue bloods of belle epoque New York, she is, in the end, fatally undone by her own stubborn idealism and inconvenient self-awareness. In Terence Davies's scrupulous, harrowing film adaptation of Wharton's 1905 novel (opening December 22), Gillian Anderson delineates Lily's slide into poverty (and corresponding elevation to martyrdom) with a forensic precision worthy of her television alter ego. Proceeding from ambivalent coquetry to tremulous anxiety to numb fatigue and finally bottomless despair, the 32-year-old X-Files star, who is in virtually every scene, rises to the occasion with a formidably complex, perfectly modulated, enormously moving performance.

To date known almost exclusively as Special Agent Dana Scully, Anderson, in town for a New York Film Festival screening (and on a 24-hour break from the set of The X-Files), confesses that watching herself in the film has proved something of an ordeal: "With Scully, she seems to edit so much and there's nothing embarrassing about what she does, and if there is, it's minor and fleeting," explains Anderson. "When I have an opportunity to dive into another character and let it all spill out, it just does—and it can be difficult to watch. It's difficult to bear witness to Lily's struggle, the wretchedness of it when she starts to descend. It's not pretty. I feel like I'm exposing aspects of myself to such a radical degree it's almost as if I'm standing in front of an audience naked."

"She reaches genuine tragedy without making it sentimental," says Davies of Anderson's performance, "and that's not easy." Having never seen The X-Files, the director invited her to audition purely on the basis of "her Singer Sargent face." (Unlikely but rewarding casting choices continue to result from Davies's avowed estrangement from contemporary pop culture; outdoing the curious spectacle of Denis Leary in the Deep South elegy The Neon Bible, The House of Mirth is inhabited by such costume-drama improbabilities as Eric Stoltz, Dan Aykroyd, and Anthony LaPaglia, each one almost as triumphant as Anderson.) The actress, it turns out, was an avid admirer of The Long Day Closes, the final film in Davies's autobiographical cycle. "I saw it twice and had to get my own copy," she says. "There was something that spoke to me—the emotionality of his camerawork, how he's not afraid of silences." Davies's unfamiliarity with her body of work was, if anything, a plus. "I love meeting people who've never seen the show," she says. "They don't come in with preconceived notions of who you are and what you can do."

"What's so fascinating to me about Lily is that she's not an innocent in all of this."
photo: Chris Schrameck
"What's so fascinating to me about Lily is that she's not an innocent in all of this."

Preconceptions seem unavoidable in this case—a TV star of a cult sci-fi series with minimal film experience in a movie version of a beloved classic—and detractors are likely to focus their disdain on the casting of Anderson. The New York Times review, in an empirically disprovable claim, declared her too "big-boned" for the role; she's a petite five foot two. ("That's incomprehensible," Davies snorts.) Wharton purists and other skeptics should note that Anderson's work on The X-Files, counter to stereotype, transcends mere deadpan composure and often involves single-handedly adding dramatic heft and unexpected poignancy to attenuated plotlines. Besides, who's to say that the role of Scully—unflappable poise and noble self-sacrifice in the face of feverish paranoia, sinister conspiracies, and thwarted romance—isn't in essence a dress rehearsal for the brutal tribal blood sport of old New York?

Anderson, for her part, seems highly attuned to the psychology of her character: "What's so fascinating to me about Lily, and I hope it comes across, is that she's not an innocent in all of this. She can be as catty and as judgmental and as wrapped up in the splendor of the material things around her as the next person, and that adds to the tragic aspect of the story. Wharton didn't set her up as a pure victim of circumstance. Lily's fear of completely letting go, her ego attachment, is her tragic flaw. It's a human foible, and she brought it on herself in the sense that we all do. One of the things I love about her is how she continues to make mistakes. She's not perfect; she's not good at the games of the world."

Meticulous as it is, The House of Mirth is notably free of plush, frilly Merchant Ivory distractions, and Davies's severity apparently extended to his direction of the actors. "Terence knows exactly what he wants, and he's adamant about it being that way," says Anderson. "He's incredibly particular about vocal rhythms. He had a lot of opinions about me remaining in the middle register, which gives you access to both ranges of emotions but is also more challenging. It's about not committing and it can also be frustrating or annoying—which is what makes it effective. You get a sense of people never saying what they mean."

Davies says restraint was the key in steering Anderson through the depths of Lily's tragedy: "Even when she does break down, it's not complete abandonment. When Rosedale [one of Lily's suitors, played by LaPaglia] says to her, 'If only you'd let me help you, you could have wiped your feet on them,' she just smiles and her eyes are full of tears. And I told her, 'But don't you dare cry. I want your eyes to fill with tears and that is all.' It's infinitely more moving. For her final scenes, I said to her, 'You've got to play it stoically. The only time you cry is when you go to Selden's—the floodgates open, you just don't care anymore, you touch the absolute nadir." The meltdown in question, a spontaneous expression of naked despondency before her hesitant would-be paramour (played by Stoltz) has a scorching immediacy, though Anderson, a self-described perfectionist, says she's not entirely satisfied with it: "It was better in my hotel room by myself."

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