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.
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.
Zemeckis’s facility at F/X management is a given and the plane’s crack-up is impressively visceral—the climax of Titanic compressed into 10 harrowing minutes of plunging vessels and flaming seas. Nor does the pummeling stop once Hanks is washed up on the white-sand beach of his personal Club Med. Island life is a baffling, bloody ordeal complicated by unsmashable coconuts and the bad tooth throbbing in the survivor’s head like a time bomb. While Robinson Crusoe was a paean to the practical middle-class virtues that allowed its industrious hero (and the nation he represents) to re-create civilization out of nothingness, Cast Away is a far less triumphalist peek into the nothingness at the heart of civilization.
Fortunately, a few indestructible FedEx boxes wash ashore—one containing an apparently useless volleyball that, as soon as Hanks paints a face on its surface, becomes his combined pal, pet, and pagan idol. In another bit of product placement, Hanks calls the ball by its trade name: Wilson. Although Cast Away is very much Hanks’s extreme everyman solo, his inanimate Man Friday deserves recognition as one of the year’s best supporting actors. At the very least, Wilson gives the star a pretext for the movie’s most emotionally wrenching scene. Alone with this absurd self-projection, Hanks spends four years on his island before building a getaway raft. The shot in which he looks back at his verdant prison, having arduously paddled free into the open ocean, is pure science fiction: He’s blasted out into space, accompanied by his sidekick, Wilson.
The raft sequence has intimations of 2001 that don’t stop even after Hanks returns to civilization (on a plane of total solitude) to hear how the “FedEx family” lost five of its “sons” and endures a bad-beyond-belief meeting with his dentist. I was amazed at the depth of alienation with which Zemeckis infused these scenes. But as if frightened at having conjured up the least compromising, bleakest vision of the human condition in any Hollywood A-picture since Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, Zemeckis casts it away with pumped-up affirmation. God moves in mysterious ways. It’s a wonderful life after all.
For the unadulterated Olympian perspective, look to the Coen brothers. In Fargo and The Big Lebowski, these ferociously clever siblings took the risk of investing in a character to whom they did not feel absolutely superior. That strategy is abandoned in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a protracted Little Moron joke in which three white idiots (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) escape from a chain gang into the wilds of late-’30s Mississippi. As the filmmakers take pains to point out, their plot occasionally intersects with The Odyssey—Clooney plays one of the few Southerners since the Civil War to be named Ulysses. The unwieldy title, however, alludes to the “serious” movie within the movie in Sullivan’s Travels. It’s a jab at anyone who expects the Coens to ever be less than facetious.
Basically, O Brother warms up a tepid gumbo of Deep South clichés: brainless Gomers, zombie Baptists, the colored boy who sells his soul to the devil to play the blues, the loudmouthed bank robber who turns out to be Baby Face Nelson. The art direction is impeccable, but this is a pop-up book that I was impatient to slam. Scampering through an ensemble whose acting is confined largely to pulling funny faces, Clooney has the oily charm of middle-period Burt Reynolds. An excellent, mainly traditional bluegrass score is placed at the service of the three stooges, who turn out to be great natural entertainers. (They sold their soul to the Coens.) Replete with Homer and Jethro two-stepping and Hee Haw high-kicks, music triumphs over racism—if not rampant rube-baiting.
The epitome of the Coens’ po’mo’ puppet show is placing the high mournful sound of Ralph Stanley’s “Oh Death” in the mouth of a murderous KKK kleagle. In terms of nihilistic mix-and-match, I’d love to see Spike Lee make a mess of this fastidiously smug scenario even more than I’d enjoy watching the Coens impose their cruel order on the chaos of Bamboozled.