100 Years of Solitude

The stylized silhouette of doomed soubrette Lily Bart emerges from the steam cloud produced by a train just about to leave the station: From its opening shot, The House of Mirth is marked by a sense of tragic inevitability. The perfection of Lily's form, matched by her unperturbed perambulation, underscores the sense that she has just missed her moment—identified by a title as "New York 1905."

For much of this leisurely yet streamlined film, brilliantly adapted by British filmmaker Terence Davies from Edith Wharton's most powerful novel, the unfortunate Lily (Gillian Anderson) engages in an elaborate chess game. Addicted to the lifestyle of New York's wealthy smart set but financially dependent on a disapproving aunt, Lily is constrained by social rules as severe as any corset. Halfheartedly trying to make a wealthy marriage, she dallies with a confirmed bachelor of modest means, allows herself to be "compromised" by a married man, and is finally duped by an adulterous wife. For this, she is cast out by a society more than willing to say and think the worst of her and, in effect, destroy its most sublime creation.

The novel's title is sternly Old Testament—"The heart of fools is in the house of mirth"—and Davies's sense of the material is closer to a Mizoguchi geisha drama than Masterpiece Theatre. His House of Mirth depicts a prolonged martyrdom in which the heroine is tricked, abused, or betrayed by almost every character she meets. Wharton describes Lily as breathtakingly beautiful; Anderson, although attractive, is more striking than exquisite. Davies says she was cast for her looks, which reminded him of the society women painted by John Singer Sargent. In any case, the filmmaker plays down Lily's cleverness and vanity to emphasize her intelligence, honesty, and heartbreakingly imprudent naïveté. Anderson, who is present in virtually every scene, gives an unexpectedly stunning, perhaps behavioral, performance as a woman who is simultaneously overvalued and underestimated by the creatures who surround her.

A feast of small sensations: Anderson and Stoltz in The House of Mirth
photo: Jaap Buitendijk
A feast of small sensations: Anderson and Stoltz in The House of Mirth


The House of Mirth
Written and directed by Terence Davies, from the novel by Edith Wharton
A Sony Pictures Classics release
Paris Theatre
Opens December 22

Cast Away
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by William Broyles Jr.
A Twentieth Century Fox release
Opens December 22

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
A Touchstone release
Opens December 22

The controlled overacting creates an ongoing Pilgrim's Progress effect in which each of the supporting players is characterized by one or two medieval humors. Eric Stoltz's worldly bachelor, Lawrence Selden, is supercilious and cowardly. The rest are brutes: Dan Aykroyd's predatory Gus Trenor is self-congratulatory and swinish; Laura Linney's Bertha Dorset is a viper so cool and dangerous she nearly eclipses her own sympathetic performance in You Can Count On Me; Eleanor Bron's Aunt Julia is fearsomely unforgiving; Anthony LaPaglia's parvenu Sim Rosedale is suavely crass. (Davies tactfully erases Rosedale's ethnicity, expunging the taint of the novel's anti-Semitism and simplifying Wharton's more complicated social scenario.)

As the performances are boldly emblazoned, so the filmmaking is remarkably subtle. The House of Mirth is set in the first decade of the motion pictures, and like the earliest actualities, it's a feast of small sensations—a movie of gestures in which cigarette smoke hangs voluptuously in the air and a daring hint of Borodin ("This Is My Beloved") insinuates itself into a scene in which Lily actually proposes marriage to the supremely diffident Selden. The wide-screen mise-en-scène is superbly restrained; the colors are richly muted. Making strategic use of close-ups and studio process shots, Davies resists the idealizing soft-focus glamour or nostalgic ostentatious opulence of similar period adaptations to conjure up a stark turn-of-the-century New York from the Beaux Art buildings of contemporary Glasgow. It's no fetishized lost world, but one that is fiercely, uncomfortably present.

At the same time, The House of Mirth offers itself as an object of contemplation. The characters materialize into their scenes—a ghostly quality is accentuated by the movie's halo lighting. Emotion is rarefied. Action is oblique. The film's showiest transition begins by tracking through rooms full of covered furniture (closer to a canvas by Magritte than Sargent) and ends with summer rain in an empty garden dissolving to the sun on the Mediterranean Sea. Struggling uselessly against her fate, Anderson's Lily is a character who seems to be lucidly conscious as she sleepwalks toward the abyss and who manages to maintain her considerable social graces even as she tumbles in. The actress holds herself in reserve for her last scenes with Rosedale and Selden to devastating effect.

Poverty is the ultimate nightmare in this grimly material order. Perhaps the most Catholic of Anglo-Saxon directors, Davies stages the culminating act of Lily's martyrdom as a religious epiphany that, having absorbed the full impact of her lonely end, freezes into the painterly image marked "New York 1907." It is Davies's unswerving allegiance to the visual that raises The House of Mirth from tasteful literary adaptation to a full-bodied movie to set beside The Magnificent Ambersons and The Life of Oharu.

It's perversely appropriate that the holiday season would be marked by not one but two evocations of overwhelming solitude. Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away is an updated Robinson Crusoe in which Tom Hanks plays an excitable Federal Express manager who has just become engaged to America's sweetheart Helen Hunt when he is stranded alone on an uninhabited South Pacific atoll after his company cargo plane goes down in a Christmas Day storm.

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