The films of Terence Davies–the dreamily evocative autobiographical reveries “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988) and “The Long Day Closes” (1992), the melancholy adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s adolescent novel “The Neon Bible” (1995) and now a filmization of Edith Wharton’s celebrated “The House of Mirth”–are all known for their stately reserve, but, as he showed during a recent Dallas interview, the British writer-director is himself voluble, energetic and witty. When asked about the “lyrical” quality of his pictures, he added a self-deprecating touch to his answer. “It’s very kind of you to call it lyrical,” he said, “because people who don’t like my work say it’s soporific. Meditative, I say. I do think that I have a particular way of photographing things, and it’s not to everybody’s taste. But content dictates form, and…you’ve got to let the story breathe.” Davies went on to decry the modern generation of viewers, brought up on television and music videos, who want everything fast. “They all think that cinema began with ‘Star Wars,'” he quipped.
Certainly no one will confuse Davies’ version of “The House of Mirth” with any episode of George Lucas’ space opera. It takes its tone from Wharton’s book, which combines a sharply satirical condemnation of the rigid New York aristocracy of the turn of the century with a description of the downfall of impecunious but lovely Lily Bart (played by “X-Files” star Gillian Anderson in an obvious change of pace), who’s destroyed by social ostracism and her own idealist, rebellious nature.
“I discovered [Wharton] by accident,” Davies explained, coming to her first through a recitation of some of her letters to Henry James during the intermission of a classical music broadcast back in the 1980s and then turning to her novels, including “The House of Mirth.” “I read it and loved it as I read it, but I didn’t think at that moment there was a film there…. Then, six years ago I looked at it again, and I thought, ‘This is a film.’ It’s a great tragedy, actually, it’s not just a savage satire, it’s a great tragedy–and they’re pretty rare. It’s a good story, too.”
Davies spoke enthusiastically about the subtlety of Wharton’s narrative. “It’s almost Chekhovian in its subtextual meaning,” he observed. “A lot of the time the surface meaning is not what they [the characters] actually mean. That’s a truism, and the dialogue is very dense because of that. But that’s the challenge–to get over what she implies and what she means.” He expanded on the point by discussing the relationship between Lily and the young lawyer Lawrence Seldon (played in the film by Eric Stoltz); though obviously attracted to one another, they can never overcome the social barriers governing their conduct to express their true feelings–until it’s too late. “They’re like inept teenagers,” Davies noted. “They can be straight and honest if they’re being cruel. But if they’re speaking about their heart, they can’t–it becomes impossible. And that is part of the modernity of the book. Even today, with all our freedom, it’s still difficult to say to someone, ‘I love you,’ because they may then turn around and say, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t love you.’ It’s still hard. They constantly fence, but the whole subtextual meaning is such a savage attack on what you don’t say as opposed to what you do say, how you appear as opposed to how you behave–the hypocricy of that.”
The opaqueness of the language with which people speak to one another isn’t the only element of contemporary relevance that Davies sees in the story, however; it also portrays how an individual can be undone by the expectations of an aristocracy, whether it be one of wealth, as existed in Wharton’s time, or one based on celebrity, as in our own. One of the targets of the novel’s satiric assault, the director said, is “the moral weight that is given to wealth, despite the fact that the wealthy oligarchy is in fact corrupt and hypocritical. But any ruling class is the same–it doesn’t matter if it’s in America or in Russia…. They say what the rule is, but they don’t usually follow it.”
It’s this system of class control that Wharton attacks so brilliantly, Davies went on, by showing how it destroys Lily Bart. “What’s sinister about it, and it’s really sinister,” he said, “is that there were vast rules, but no one told you. You were expected to know them. You transgressed, and revenge was swift and savage. There’s something truly chilling about that. That’s part of Lily’s tragedy: she’s seduced by surface. Lily doesn’t know [the game]. And you can only play the game if you know it. She doesn’t really know the game. She thinks she does, but that’s part of her downfall. Because she’s a product of her background, because they’ve said, ‘You’re beautiful, you’ll get a rich husband,’ she believes it. The journey of the film is the destruction of that myth and her finding her own integrity, and a kind of salvation, because she looks at the truth, which is very hard to face.”
Davies is clearly devoted to Wharton’s original, and was intent on preserving its tragic dimension in his adaptation. But he’s aware that its downbeat denouement may turn off contemporary viewers. He pointed out that when a stage version of “The House of Mirth” was produced on Broadway in the 1930s, it closed quickly, and the author couldn’t understand why her story hadn’t attracted a larger audience. One of her friends explained with a quip: “It failed for a simple reason–Americans like tragedy with a happy ending.” The truth of the observation was brought to Davies when he was trying to assemble the financing to shoot the picture, on a modest $8 million budget, in Scotland. “I remember someone saying to me, ‘Why’s she got to die?’ And I said, (a) because it’s in the book, and (b) because it’s the natural conclusion to that tragedy. And then I said the worst possible thing: ‘Well, if you imagine King Lear, if he doesn’t split his kingdom between his three daughters, then there’s no tragedy.’ ‘Who’s King Lear?’ they said. And I said, ‘It’s a new band.'”
But despite his general fidelity to the book, Davies didn’t hesitate to make changes when he thought them appropriate. A major instance is the elimination of the character of Gerty Farish, a saintly woman with a crush on Seldon who acts as a kind of luminous contrast to Bertha Dorset, the society dame who dooms Lily. “She represents nineteenth-century sentimentality for me,” he explained, and so he transferred her infatuation with Seldon to Grace Stepney, Lily’s cousin who brutally rejects her plea for assistance at the end of the story and dooms her to destruction. In the book, Davies observed, Grace is “just rather horrid. But you put them [Grace and Gerty] together, and something happens, something dramatic and cinematic happens. Not only does Grace inherit the crush; she also inherits what all unrequited love comes to–sexual jealousy. So that when she refuses to help [Lily], she thinks she’s driven by moral, Christian rectitude. In fact it’s pure, plain old-fashioned jealousy. She loathes Lily. I thought, if they’re combined, then she really is powerful.”
“The House of Mirth” is very different from all of Davies’ previous pictures, but the writer-director sees it as a natural progression in his development as a filmmaker. His semi-autobiographical films, he opined, involved “experimenting with time and memory–that’s what they’re all about. And they have their own dynamic, but it’s not the same as a linear narrative. What drew me to ‘The Neon Bible’ is that it’s about time and memory [too]. I wanted to continue that experimentation, [and] I just felt an affinity to the story.” After completing “Bible,” however, he chose a new path. “I wanted to do something that was linear,…because that has its own different dynamic, different strategies that you’ve got to use to make things work. To use a musical analogy, I wanted to show that I could write a good tune.” The only question now is whether his film, being gradually released throughout the country by Sony Pictures Classics and also starring Dan Aykroyd, Anthony LaPaglia, Laura Linney and Elizabeth McGovern, will prove to be a tune that American audiences choose to listen to.