All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.


Grade: D+

As readers of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel will know well, there isn’t much joy in “The House of Mirth,” which after all narrates the downfall of a young woman in the brutally class-conscious society of turn-of-the-century New York; but what little lightness of mood is to be found there has been thoroughly eradicated by British writer-director Terence Davies, whose adaptation is meticulous in every insignificant detail but excruciatingly slow and emotionally bloodless. While one would love to connect with Wharton’s powerful tale of an essentially good person undone by the unyielding expectations of a cruel social system (as well as by her own defects), the picture is like an episode of “Masterpiece Theatre” mistakenly broadcast in slow motion. It’s almost impossible to relate to, despite the fact that its theme is actually quite contemporary.

Some might say that the same quality afflicted the other recent Wharton filmization, the 1993 version of “The Age of Innocence,” but that wouldn’t be true. Martin Scorsese’s picture was elegantly mounted and sumptuously appointed, as Davies’ film is, and it too moved at a deliberate pace. But one could feel an undercurrent of passion and humanity throbbing beneath the surface of the earlier film. In the present instance the result exhibits not only the qualities of distancing and precision that Scorsese’s effort showed, but also a remoteness and chilly detachment that alienate the viewer from the action (or, very often, inaction) onscreen. It resembles a desiccated artifact more than a living drama, the motivations of its characters and the social conventions being criticized remaining obstinately opaque.

The problem is exacerbated by casting decisions. Gillian Anderson looks right as the doomed Lily Bart, but she seems ill-at-ease in the role, too often just modeling her period dresses rather than giving us a real sense of the turmoil the character experiences–a fatal flaw in a piece in which we must be able to perceive what the protagonist is feeling beneath a placid exterior. This failure leaves a hole at the center of the picture which couldn’t be salvaged by anyone else, but neither Eric Stoltz nor Dan Aykroyd help matters. The former plays lawyer Lawrence Seldon, who’s clearly attracted to Lily (as she is to him) but never commits to her, and the latter sleazy Gus Trenor, the nouveau riche financier who uses the heroine’s need for money to compromise her. Both actors give very superficial readings of their characters and appear decidedly overmatched by the parts. There is compensation, however, in some of the secondary roles. Eleanor Bron is smugness personified as Lily’s rigid, unforgiving aunt, Laura Linney exquisitely nasty as the manipulative Bertha Dorset, and Elizabeth McGovern suitably easygoing as Carry Fisher. Anthony LaPaglia, moreover, is surprisingly engaging as entrepreneur Sim Rosedale, a figure somewhat more likable than he is in the book–as well as much less ostentatiously Jewish. (The important character of Gerty Farish has been entirely excised, with her more important plot responsibilities reassigned either to MicGovern’s Fisher or to Jodhi May’s stolid Grace Stepney.)

One must also admire the expertise shown by production designer Don Taylor and costumer Monica Howe, as well as the ability of cinematographer Remi Adefarasin to capture so well the careful compositions and long tracking shots of which Davies is inordinately fond. The writer-director’s choice of music is uncannily successful too, with bits from Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” nicely juxtaposed against the episode in which Lily accompanies Gus and Sim to the opera. (It should be noted, though, that their appearance is anachronistic, since “Cosi” wasn’t performed in New York until quite a few years later because of its supposedly scandalous libretto.)

None of the incidental pleasures, however, can make up for the crucial emptiness at the center of “The House of Mirth,” which must be attributed to Davies’ overly rarefied approach and Anderson’s uninvolving performance. Watching the film, one might well wonder what it might have been like had Bette Davis played Lily in the 1940s under the directorial hand of, say, William Wyler. Now there would have been a picture with some dramatic energy and inner life!


Italian writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore, who won an Oscar in 1990 for his popular coming-of-age tale “Cinema Paradiso,” is in the running for similar recognition this year for his new film “Malena.” It too is a coming-of-age story, adapted from a short story by Luciano Vincenzoni, about a lad growing up in a small village during World War II who becomes infatuated with the title character, a gorgeous widow who’s the object of all the townsmen’s lust and all their wives’ envy. As the boy watches from afar, Malena is forced into prostitution by her financial woes, and after the liberation is abused and exiled by her jealous neighbors. Ultimately he’s able to assist her, a sign of his growing maturity.

Tornatore had read the story years ago, but, as he said through an interpreter in a recent Dallas interview, “I liked it, but I didn’t like it enough to think about actually making it into a film.” It wasn’t until Monica Bullucci, a famous model, came to his attention that he thought seriously about bringing it to the screen. “Monica Bellucci made the story come back into my mind,” Tornatore recalled, “and I said to myself, ‘She could do it well.'”

Tornatore set about adapting the tale, transferring the action to his native Sicily and adding the sort of affectionate references to films familiar from “Cinema Paradiso.” The change to a Sicilian background simply made it an easier project to write and film. “When I make a film that’s set in Sicily,” he explained, “there’s a certain element of facilitation. There are a lot of problems that I solve in an instant…. I know the habits, the customs of the people. Everything is easier for me.” But it remained the actress playing Malena who most inspired him. “I wrote the film for her [Bellucci] and about her,” he said, “almost like a custom-made dress for her. And I have to say that she gave back to the film and worked on it with a dedication equal to that I applied in writing the script for her.”

Still, the story is told from the point of view of Renato Amoroso, the youth who becomes obsessed with Malena, and in that respect it dovetails with an emphasis on childhood and memory that runs through the director’s work. “It’s evidently a recurring theme,” Tornatore admitted, “even though it’s not present in every one of my films. I never interrogate myself about why this theme comes up. I realize that there has to be a deep reason, but I wouldn’t know how to formulate it. Maybe I should go to a psychiatrist,…but I don’t have enough time!”

Tornatore did, however, offer one partial explanation for his regular recourse to the theme. “I grew up listening to stories that would be told to me every day, about the war, about the hard times of life in those years, and I recognize that my parents and grandparents were extraordinary narrators. They fascinated me. My father…got me so involved [in the events of his youth] that sometimes, when I make films that take place, for example, in the fifties–the years when I was born, but clearly I was too young to remember them–I felt like I had actually lived through that decade. This is one part of the explanation. I realize that there has to be a deeper explanation, but I don’t know what it is.”

Tornatore is far more certain about why he selected Giuseppe Sulfaro, a Sicilian boy with no prior acting experience, to play Renato. Locating just the right young man was, as Tornatore put it, “a very complex and long process, but the right process to take” because, he said, “I knew that picking the wrong kid would mean throwing the film into the garbage.” Some 3000 boys were considered, a number then reduced to approximately 100 in a first round of interviews. The hundred were then whittled down to 30, all of whom were auditioned more thoroughly. Nine youths were eventually chosen as finalists, and all were required to play a scene devised by Tornatore with an actress portraying Malena. As part of the scene, Tornatore told the nine that they could improvise by asking the actress anything they liked. “She has to answer any question you ask,” he instructed them. “They were all a little shy, but at one point Giuseppe Sulfaro, while we were shooting, started asking her questions–‘How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend?’ Then he asked: ‘What size bra do you wear?’ The actress said: ‘I don’t know. Why don’t you look? Look for yourself.’ And he unbuttoned her shirt and said, ‘You’re the third size.’ He didn’t blush at all. It was incredible…. You could see that he had a receptive and reactive capacity that was very strong.” It was that incident which clinched the role for Sulfaro, and Tornatore says that he never for a moment regretted the choice. This probably isn’t the first instance that a bra size has been a determining factor in a performer’s landing a role, but it’s not likely ever to have occurred in quite the same way before or since.

Miramax Films’ “Malena” will open in selected cities on Christmas Day, and will gradually expand throughout the country early in the New Year.