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A Winning Full 'House'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2001


    'House of Mirth' Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz in "The House of Mirth." (Sony Pictures Classics)
Like a corkscrew slowly, inexorably penetrating a bottle of spoiled wine, filmmaker Terence Davies's brilliant, astringent version of Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth" painstakingly worms its way downward into turn-of-the-century New York society, only to reveal the sour liquor that flows through the hearts of his monied, well-dressed subjects. As in Wharton's sardonic yet understated 1905 novel of manners, close attention must be paid to what goes on. Davies' arch, measured dialogue -- and this is a world intoxicated with conversation -- is rich with provocative misdirection, sublimated sexuality, telling glances and double and triple entendre.

To quote a line from the film, "If obliquity were a vice, we should all be tainted."

At the center of the tragic story is socialite Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), a young unmarried beauty eager to enter and rise through the upper crust, if only she can figure out how to negotiate the gap between her head and her heart. Should she marry the dashing lawyer Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz), whom she loves but who is of modest means, or hold out for a "better," if less emotionally fulfilling, match?

Like Hamlet's, Lily's problem would appear to be an inability to know -- let alone make up -- her mind, not to mention a propensity for making some rather impulsive if well-intentioned decisions. She gambles and loses her shirt at bridge, a game she abhors, just to avoid appearing like a prig at parties. She then becomes indebted to a lecherous benefactor (Dan Aykroyd), who offers her money with strings attached that she can't even see. And she allows herself to become the subject of gossip by socializing, albeit innocently, with married men. No single misstep, in and of itself though, is sufficiently damning. Yet incrementally, inch by inch, it is Lily herself who saunters with her pretty hat and parasol into a kind of ruination.

As one character observes, it's as much because she does the right thing at the wrong time as because she does the wrong thing at the right time. Upon occasion, it is simply her own failure to act when she has the means and the opportunity to do so that bedevils her. When she is betrayed by her one-time friend Bertha Dorset (played to smarmy perfection by Laura Linney), and Lily hesitates to use a weapon that has fallen into her hands to destroy her enemy, one can see just how decency can become a liability in the world of the haves. In Davies and Wharton's jaundiced view of social Darwinism, the weak (and that includes those with ethics) get chewed up and spat out like roast pheasant bones.

Although the cast is uniformly strong, the real revelation here is "The X-Files' " Anderson, who plays Lily with subtle gradations of emotional depth unexpected from someone who has made a career out of deadpan. When we first meet Lily, her character is all radiant subtext: Her smoldering carnality -- buried beneath a veneer of social-climbing pleasantries -- seeps out in every cigarette she and Lawrence share. When he lights her cigarette off his, it's like they're having sex, and no one ever even unbuttons a top button. Later, Anderson gives a tour de force as a woman who's at the end of her rope without knowing how she got there.

Come to watch little Agent Scully act. Stay to watch the self-destructive beauty of her paralyzing inaction.

"The House of Mirth" (PG, 124 minutes) – Contains sexual nuance, infidelity and drug use.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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