Money may not buy happiness, but it is the only means of survival for an unmarried socialite of the Gilded Age. Terence Davies’ screen adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth” captures the bleak exclusiveness of elite New York at the turn of the century, where none but the richest and the most cunning prosper.
As a heavy-set Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) emerges from smoky Grand Central Station, equipped with a formidable hat and an artificial smile, one senses that this is not a depiction of the cream of the social crop’s pleasure-filled lives. Of course, no one who has read “The House of Mirth” expects jollity, but Davies’ adaptation skims away all of the easy enjoyment of the elite, leaving little but envy and polite hatred of the skin-crawling variety. The pervasive gloom of even the liveliest scenes leaves one wondering why anyone would want to endlessly grapple for a place at the top of the ladder, depressing as it is.
The story traces 29- year-old Lily Bart in her struggle to maintain the social status gained through good looks and quick wit in the face of a growing reputation for dissolute behavior and the loss of her income. The secret to success, Lily’s friends advise her, lies in keeping enemies close — or at least rendering them harmless with a husband’s secure fortune.
Unfortunately, Lily has a conscience. Unable to reciprocate nastiness and loathe to save herself by marrying one of several possible rich but disgusting men, Lily stands at a crossroads. She repeatedly chooses the moral high road, which naturally leads her away from the elite.
The heaviness that, by the end of the movie, presses down with the force of its thousands of cleverly worded gibes lies in the cruelty behind wealth’s glimmer. “The world is vile,” sympathizes a rare friend. “You must marry.” Without family fortune or the security of a husband’s wealth, Lily is prey to the maliciousness of women who begrudge her the relative freedom they lost marrying into money. In a society where every seemingly casual interaction conceals layers of meaning, Lily’s every word and deed carry social repercussions.
The real tragedy of Lily’s eventual plummet lies not in her social failure but in her sacrifice of true happiness. Lily, unlike the smiling husks in expensive dresses surrounding her, actually loves someone other than herself. But Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz), though successful, is only a lawyer, and both of them realize that without the requisite millions Lily could never remain at the top. Even for the man she loves, Lily remains unable to surrender her top-rung lifestyle, though her independent spirit makes it hard to fathom why.
Lily’s inability to free herself from the threads of the elaborate and dangerous game is easier to buy reading Wharton’s description than watching Anderson’s performance. The stony strength of Anderson’s X-files character or perhaps her sturdy build, lends a degree of implausibility to Lily’s indecisive waffling. Her penetrating gaze is hardly that of a woman who would gamble away thousands for fear of seeming priggish, or believe the assurances of a sleazy businessman who promises her string-free profits in a bear market. Lily’s character calls for a less fiery and more waifish actress, one who could more convincingly play the role of a socialite. A tinkling laugh and the prattling skills a social butterfly requires are incompatible with Anderson’s very appearance, despite her redeeming ability to simulate an emotional breakdown.
Other roles, however, are cast even more disappointingly. Lily’s aunt (Eleanor Born) looks and speaks as though she were inhabited by a demon with a book balanced on its head. Her caricature, while making it easy to empathize with poor Lily, also downplays the essential ingredient of Lily’s own mistakes. Wharton does not dismiss Lily’s self-inflicted debt as the fault of others, as Bron’s performance as a hyperbolically cruel old woman makes the audience want to. Dan Aired plays a married but involuntarily repressed Gus Tremor who tries to back Lily into the corner of sexual recompense. He is supposed to symbolize the manipulative cunning of the pervert, but instead delivers his lines like an adolescent with a sticky mouth and stickier fingers.
“The House of Mirth’s” tour de force lies not in its casting, but in its emphasis on the chilling power of high society to seduce those who imagine that happiness lies in its elitism. The breathtaking richness of the mansions, yachts and clothing that the elite so elegantly take for granted only emphasizes the emptiness inherent in society’s convincing lies. Though Lily disintegrates in her downward spiral, she at least retains an identity. The rage at the callousness of the elites that her undeserved downfall evokes is second only to the rage inspired by the materialism that deceived the elites into their miserable cruelty. The film remains true to Wharton’s purpose, and despite its faults and at times tedious 140 minutes, its message resonates, a depressing but refreshingly honest portrait of hidden ugliness.