Visually detailed but emotionally dry, Terence Davies’ “The House of Mirth” plays more like “Scenes From Edith Wharton’s Novel” than a dramatically involving adaptation that brings its characters and period to life. Story of an ambitious but cash-strapped young woman looking for a provider in early 20th century Gotham high society may appeal to those who respond to the Brit director’s highly rarefied emotional palette. But it looks unlikely to click with more general auds despite solid to good performances from a generally experienced cast. Pic split critics at its Locarno Film Festival world preem, drawing a decidedly warmer reception among non-Anglophones. Its first real test in front of native English speakers will be at the Edinburgh Intl. Film Festival, where it unspools Aug. 19.
Davies’ first pic in five years — after the extremely mixed reaction to his Cannes competer “The Neon Bible” — is his most linear movie to date, as well as his first not to be shaped as a reminiscence or from a child’s p.o.v. By opting for a slice-at-a-time approach to Wharton’s novel, however, helmer has again avoided a purely narrative structure, often leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps and flattening out any dramatic highs and lows.
In Martin Scorsese’s more visually sumptuous and engaging adaptation of the author’s “The Age of Innocence,” there was a sense of underlying flow between the conversation pieces and social standoffs, as a well as a feeling that these were real characters living in a functioning, fully drawn social world. In Davies’ reduction of “Mirth,” his protags are more like chess pieces being moved around a board whose totality is never seen.
Pic opens promisingly with Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) emerging like a wraith from a cloud of smoke at New York’s train station and taking tea at the apartment of lawyer Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), a handsome bachelor.
There’s a longtime attraction on both sides, but Selden is not rich enough to satisfy Lily, so the meeting is underpinned by a sadness that their relationship can never progress to the next step. It’s one of the best scenes in the pic, hinting at a movie that never emerges.
Lily is actually on her way to Bellomont for social mingling at the country home of businessman Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd) and his wife. Lily has social smarts but desperately needs some green too, and when Gus offers to invest some money for her, she accepts.
Gus has a nonfinancial form of repayment in mind, and when he lures her back to his New York apartment one night for some nooky, claiming the investment was merely a loan, she rebuffs his clumsy advances. The confrontation ends badly, with Lily now $9,000 in debt to Gus.
Potential salvation comes in the form of financier Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), who makes Lily a business proposition of a comfortable marriage. Sim, however, is nouveau riche rather than genuine society, and she turns him down.
An hour into the picture, in a meticulous dissolve set to an ensemble from Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte,” the action shifts to the Mediterranean, where powerful socialite Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney) has invited Lily as an unwitting decoy for an affair under the eyes of her husband, George Dorset (Terry Kinney). When the trip turns sour, George confides to Lily that he’s ready to divorce his philandering wife if only he had some solid proof of her affairs.
Lily has that in some letters she earlier acquired, but Bertha’s lover in this case was Selden. Unwilling to harm him, she refuses to use the proof.Still in debt to Gus and left only a disappointingly small legacy by her disapproving aunt (Eleanor Bron), Lily sinks slowly into poverty after a variety of unsuccessful jobs.
By slicing the novel into a succession of set pieces, Davies has fogged the main character’s motivation to a point where it’s a confusing collection of contradictions. At the same time ambitious and principled, Lily’s in love with the good life but unwilling to accept its hypocrisies, open to the idea of a business marriage but bedeviled by her lingering attraction to Selden. Though she bitingly refers to marrying as something that “a girl must, a man if he chooses,” her own behavior hardly equips her for the role — as emphasized by Davies’ spin on the novel — of a woman destroyed by social conventions of the time.
In her first major screen role outside “The X-Files,” Anderson offers a poised, vocally disciplined perf, marbled with hints of her character’s ruthlessness; she handles the formal dialogue with ease. But within the confines of Davies’ rigid direction, thesp cannot turn Lily into a genuinely involving study of a woman brought low by the values of the very society she aspires to join. It would be a tricky assignment for even a seasoned actress, and Anderson is far from that yet.
In a relatively small role as queen bitch Bertha, Linney is the most successful among the femme cast in making her character come alive. Also successful is Bron as Lily’s aunt, in a typically rotund perf that finds her relishing the acerbic side of her dialogue.
Among the men, it’s also the supports who create the strongest impression, headed by LaPaglia in several one-on-one scenes with Lily in which he draws a powerful portrait of a semioutsider who fully understands the financial dynamics of New York society.
Though with considerably less screen time, LaPaglia creates a stronger impression than Stoltz, whose Selden is precise but too pallid for such a crucial role. Aykroyd is strong as Gus in the early going, but essentially disappears thereafter.
Considerable care by costumer Monica Howe and production designer Don Taylor has gone into creating the look of Gotham circa 1905, though the restraints of the budget and shooting on Glasgow locations (plus a brief spell in southern France) give the movie an abstract feel that further robs it of a living, breathing vitality. Use of classical music for the score is effective but plays way too thin in the second half.