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[whitespace] 'The House of Mirth'
Planet Mirth: Eric Stolz (right) plays the object of Gillian Anderson's desire in 'The House of Mirth.'

The Beautiful and the Damned

Gillian Anderson descends into the snake pit in Terence Davies' film adaptation of Edith Wharton's classic novel

By Valerie Ross

WHENEVER A film version of a beloved novel is released, collective anxieties boil down to one question: will the film be true to the spirit of the book?

Problems of truth are central to Terence Davies' version of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. So when his version strays from the original, it usually does so in the service of a larger point. The elite members of the 1905 New York society he and Wharton are depicting are privileged enough to choose their realities, and woe to the unfortunate wretch who strives for a higher ground of truth or virtue.

Both the film and the book portray forms of cruelty and betrayal that range from the subtle to the sublime; the brutalities we witness are so genteel that they seem like an art form, perfected from generations of practice. In answer to the prevailing question: yes, the movie is true to the spirit of the book philosophically and aesthetically (for the most part), but there are several choices that make it stand apart from the original--some for better, some for worse.

The unfortunate wretch of this lush, absorbing tale of ambition, social intrigue and lost love is Lily Bart--one of the great prefeminist tragic heroines in American literature. Played with bittersweet sensuality and exceptional poise by Gillian Anderson, Lily is a study in trapped passions, stunted potential and manipulative grace. Stunningly beautiful and attractively rebellious, Lily Bart is in the precarious position of having no family money of her own, dependent upon the goodwill of a most uncharitable rich aunt.

When we first meet Lily she is on a half-hearted hunt for a rich husband--half of her heart knows that this is her only chance for financial security, while the other half longs for freedom. As she mingles bravely in an aristocratic world that bears close resemblance to a bejeweled snake pit, Lily manages to sabotage all of her own efforts for self-advancement--granted, with the help of more than a few false friends.

Her slow, baffling, downward spiral from the elegant heights of wealth to the hopeless depths of poverty and Davies' perfect eye for the tonal differences of each level of society she experiences along the way make this film unforgettable.

Anderson turns out to be an unexpectedly excellent choice for Lily. She actually gives the character more complexity and fire than she has in the novel, which is refreshing, and her beauty is unusual enough, her face intelligent enough, to justify some of Lily's more paradoxical behavior.

At the outset of the film, as in the novel, we are not sure if we like Lily; she seems too calculating and arch, false and bloodless--that is, until we meet some of the vampires that pass for humans in this story. Against the rest, Lily seems infinitely more vulnerable, virtuous, fragile and fiercely noble. We learn to love her as we watch her drown.

Appropriately, Anderson's performance is brittle at first, only imperceptibly softening with each self-defeating step she takes. In the beginning, Anderson is merely acting the role of Lily Bart, just as Lily is uncomfortably performing the role of her own life; but by the end, Anderson fully becomes Lily, just as Lily finally discovers her own rock-bottom truth.

Money and Manners

UNFORTUNATELY, Eric Stolz does not deliver an equally compelling performance in the role of Lawrence Selden, the man Lily loves. Selden is a lawyer of modest means and a bachelor, a member of high society by virtue of his family background, not wealth. Selden's appeal for Lily, aside from his intelligence, sensitivity and good looks, is his independence. If she were a man, Lily would gladly trade the glamour of her own parasitic existence for Selden's professional career and private apartment.

Selden loves Lily too, but can only admire her from a distance. His character should be played with poised strength, benevolence and quiet charm, not Stolz's simpering, cowardly boyishness.

As arch villainess Bertha Dorset, Laura Linney has a field day of catty cruelty, while Dan Ackroyd is insightfully cast in a straight role as Gus Trenor his deceptively buffoonish exterior conceals true malice.

On the spectrum of meanness however, Bertha and Gus look kind compared to the treatment Lily's more immediate family dishes out. Lily's dour aunt, Mrs. Peniston (played with just the right prudish rectitude by Eleanor Bron), cuts Lily out of her will, and gives everything to her other, more servile niece Grace Stepney.

This is another character (besides Selden) that Davies gets wrong. Grace is a cipher in the novel, but Davies has spliced her with attributes from a more central character--Selden's cousin Gerty Farish--who is missing from the film. In the novel, Gerty provides Lily with true friendship; she also serves as an important example of how a poor single woman can survive on her own without compromising her honor.

One character Davies improves is the Jewish financier Sim Rosedale. By casting Anthony LaPaglia, who has precisely the bemused magnetism and intelligent substance lacking in Stolz's Selden, Davies makes Rosedale a contender for our and Lily's sympathies, which he never is in the novel.

Wharton's portrait of the anti-Semitism in turn-of-the-century New York is one of the more disturbing aspects of her book, mostly because it is unclear from her negative sterotyping of Rosedale if she participated in the very prejudice she portrays, Davies, however, changes the subject entirely: it is Rosedale's nouveau riche social climbing that Lily condemns, while the fact that he is Jewish is never mentioned. Rosedale appears to offer Lily real friendship at the end; but alas, he is only human, and male at that, and "friendships" between the sexes at this time usually involved both sex and money, neither of which Lily can afford.

The luscious sets and sumptuous gowns of Davies' film deliver the splendor of old wealth, but the director also captures the stifling quality of post-Victorian parlors, the glare of glamorous hotels, the dreariness of cheap rooming houses and the mind-numbing din of sweatshops.

Aside from a few artsy overindulgences, Davies' symbolic gestures are thoughtful and well-earned. He creates two compelling motifs that haunt Lily's life: lace and trains. Lace veils Lily's face, cloisters her body and stifles her world with curtains that figuratively bar the windows of her life, while steam trains seem to be perpetually leaving without her, or to be carrying her into a destiny beyond her control.

There is one crucial visual moment that is lost, however, which can either make or break our understanding of Lily's role in her society. In the novel, Lily takes part in a curious entertainment of the idle rich: she poses in a series of "tableaux vivants"--still-life re-enactments of famous paintings--along with many other beautiful women at a big party. Compared to the others, Lily's tableau stands out as unique, surpassing the beauty of the painting itself. Wharton tells us: "The noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty."

But Davies makes Lily the only person doing a tableau and takes the moment entirely out of context; the pose he gives her is cute and fluffy, which fails to communicate the fact that Lily's gift--both her true essence and her tragedy--is that she is a living work of art.

In the end, Lily's fall from social grace elevates her to a symbol of living art that society cannot accept, because it is simply too threatening.

House of Mirth (rated PG; 140 min.), directed by Terence Davies, adapted by Davies from the novel by Edith Wharton, photographed by Remi Adefarasin and starring Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz and Dan Aykroyd, opens Friday (Feb. 15) at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the February 7-14, 2001, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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