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!