Hearsay paves the way to isolation

Review: In `The House of Mirth,' both Gillian Anderson and the character she plays are left to fend for themselves.

March 02, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN FILM CRITIC

Poor Lily Bart - so sure she could get by on beauty, luck and pluck alone. Her rude awakening and ignominious fate is the stuff of classic drama.

It's also the stuff of a cinematic genre - the resourceful 19th-century woman whom society seems determined to suppress that's threatening to become a cinematic cliche. What prevents "The House of Mirth" from being just another proto-feminist parable is not only tremendous source material (it's hard to resist the bite of good Edith Wharton), but a strong, resourceful cast, spearheaded by Gillian Anderson's multi-layered, self-assured turn in the lead role.

A young, beautiful and so far unmarried New York socialite, Bart has lived the high life thanks to the largesse of her Aunt Julia (Eleanor Bron). But that particular well is about to dry up - and not just because Aunt Julia is an old woman with not much time left.

No, the bigger problem is that Aunt Julia's patience is wearing thin. Lily, who fancies herself a free spirit, has the annoying habit of playing both ends against the middle, especially in matters of the heart. She has refused to marry, seemingly unable to decide if love or money is the motivation.

There has been a steady stream of worthy (read: well-to-do) courtiers, but none she thinks twice about. And then there's the rakish Lawrence Seldon (a miscast Eric Stoltz), with whom Lily carries on a winking flirtation. These two seem made for each other, a destiny both seem intent on denying.

So Lily Bart continues on her merry way, scoffing at the dictates of her class and living by her rules, a no-no in New York social circles.

This being a tragedy, you know her undoing will come. Here, the vehicle is that deadly scourge, gossip. When rumor has it that Lily has been dilly-dallying with a married man, Aunt Julia and the rest of her family pretend she no longer exists. Lily has to fend for herself, a situation neither her breeding nor her disposition has prepared her for. In a world where image and reputation are everything, even her supposed friends desert her.

Anderson brings real gravitas to the unfortunate Lily Bart, in an Oscar-caliber performance that makes one wonder what Academy voters are looking for. She's called upon not only to carry the film (she's in nearly every scene), but also to let much of the story line play out on her face and in her mannerisms and tone of voice.

And she's not the only one showing exemplary work. Laura Linney as Lily's supposed friend, Bertha Dorset, speaks volumes with the set of her jaw alone. Dan Aykroyd and Anthony LaPaglia as two spurned suitors - the former a scoundrel, the latter as undeserving of his unsavory reputation as Lily is of hers - make the most of their brief screen time.

Unfortunately, writer-director Terence Davies ("The Neon Bible") isn't much help. He's a filmmaker capable of incomparable beauty - even with the sound turned off, "The House of Mirth" would enthrall - whose grasp of narrative and character doesn't always measure up. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, this film has characters who just seem tossed in and events that seem to have occurred in a vacuum. And his screenplay never really lets us see beneath Lily's surface.

Of course, nothing in "The House of Mirth" occurs in a vacuum; the essence of Wharton's story is that a free soul such as Bart's should be encouraged to thrive and even allowed at times to falter. She could never survive in a society where the only real question a woman faced was who and when she planned to marry. Even if Davies seems to forget that at times and lose interest in Bart's plight, Anderson never does.

`The House of Mirth'

Starring Gillian Anderson

Written and directed by Terence Davies

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated PG (Adult themes)

Running time 140 minutes

Sun score ***

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