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[whitespace] 'The House of Mirth'
Lasting Fancy: Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) is a true soul-mate but a poor marriage prospect to high-society beauty Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson).

Noble 'Mirth'

Gillian Anderson masterfully plays a rare bird caught in a gilded cage in 'The House of Mirth'

By Nicole McEwan

DIRECTOR TERENCE DAVIES' artful, elegant screen adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth is a compelling morality play which offers a big dramatic payoff to those patient enough to appreciate its slow-building narrative and spare aesthetic.

In a role which requires that all the acting happens between the lines, The X-Files veteran Gillian Anderson (cast for her resemblance to a female subject in a John Singer Sargent painting) turns in an impressive and subtle performance as Lily Bart, a woman who is an alien even in her native environment but is too self-consumed to realize it. It's a plum gig for any actress and it's fascinating to watch Anderson--best known for her long-running role as skeptical FBI agent Scully on The X-Files--sink her teeth into it.

In the book, Edith Wharton describes Lily as a woman both "vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine". A vivacious socialite at the top of her game, the red-headed beauty has been been cultivated as carefully as any hothouse flower. At 29, however, her exhibition days are over--and she knows it. Her fruit will either be plucked now or wither on the vine, a fact that doesn't make choosing a husband any easier.

A woman of independent mind, Lily is sadly lacking in independent means. At the height of the Belle Epoque, within the corset-tight strictures of high society, such misplaced spirit can only complicate life. Marriage is inevitable, she knows. Worse is the knowledge that she will marry for money, not love. The question becomes: which does she really value more?

As the film opens, Lily is on her way to another of the many vapid social engagements which have become, in effect, her career. A master of the art of flirtation, the ravishing, witty young woman is in demand at all the "right" parties, where she provokes adulation in men and envy in women. Raised in a sheltered environment, more than a bit spoiled, she is outspoken, brazen even. Tragically she is too naive to realize her own vulnerability.

Herself to the manor born, Wharton often painted turn-of-the-20th-century New York high society as a dangerous place--a savage environment full of backstabbers, opportunists and social climbers where you were either a predator or prey. As the story unfolds, Lily's identity shifts inexorably from the former to the latter.

On the fateful day we meet her, Lily misses a train, runs into a suitor (Eric Stolz) at the station and makes a fatal error in judgement which has a domino-like effect on her future. Among the players vying to make or break her are Bertha Dorset (You Can Count on Me's Laura Linney) a conniving adulteress threatened by Lily's superior looks and intellect; Gus Trenor (a swinish Dan Aykroyd) who tricks Lily into becoming financially indebted to him in an attempt to obtain sexual favors and Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), who sees Lily's aristocratic pedigree as a shortcut to social respectability.

Through fine performances and Davies' careful recreation of one woman's claustrophobic existence, The House of Mirth is a chilling and effective reminder of a time not so long ago when only men were born with second chances.

The House of Mirth (PG; 123 min.) written and directed by Terence Davies, adapted from a novel by Edith Wharton, photographed by Remi Adefarasin and starring Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Laura Linney and Dan Aykroyd, opens Friday at the Los Gatos Cinema in Los Gatos.

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From the January 11-17, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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