House of Mirth, The (UK, 2000) ** 1/2
Written & directed by Terence Davies, from the eponumous novel by Edith Wharton. Produced by Olivia Stewart. Photography, Remi Adefarasin. Editing, Mciahel Parker. Production design, Don Taylor. Music direction, Adrian Johnston. Cast: Gillian Anderson (Lily Bart), Dan Aykroyd (Gus Trenor), Eleanor Bron (Mrs. Peniston), Terry Kinney (George Dorset), Anthony LaPaglia (Sim Rosedale), Laura Linney (Bertha Doset), Elizabeth McGovern (Carry Fisher), Johdi May (Grace STepney), Eric Stoltz (Lawrence Seldon). et al. A Sony release. 140 minutes. R (why? beats me) At the Art.
Novelist and short stories writer Edith Wharton (NYC 1862- France 1937) was born into a family of toffs (in British) or swells (in American). Several of her novels were made into movies, most notably: "The House of Mirth" (first filmed in 1918);"The Age of Innocence" for which, in 1921, she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize (filmed in 1924, 1934, and by Martin Scorsese in 1993); the sad "Ethan Frome" (TV film in 1960, movie in 1993).
Those are Wharton's best-known works. Yet I would imagine that her largest public was the movie adaptation of her novel The Old Maid. It was turned into grand melodrama directed by Edmund Goulding in 1939. Starring Bette Davis in one of her most powerfully heart-breaking, tear-jerking roles, and Miriam Hopkins, it is still a staple --deservedly so.
"The House of Mirth," an ironic title, is an early novel. Like much of Wharton's output it portrays the upper classes that she knew so well. The year is 1905, when carriages were still in use but motor cars were no longer a curiosity.
It is essentially the story of Lily Bart who is charming but rather impecunious, lives with her old, aristocratic aunt Mrs. Peniston. Lily is also something of a gambler, who keeps losing at cards.
She circulates in high society. Now 28 she says, in fashionable French, to her friend Lawrence Sheldon : "I am une jeune fille a marier" (a girl that has to marry). The society she frequents is more or less Henry James territory. James was both a friend a major influence on Wharton. It could, in many aspects, be a British milieu. In fact, the film's America was very nicely "played" by places and buildings in Glasgow, with the exception of a cruise to the French Riviera. Looking at it with severity, Lily is a parasite. As the situation gets more critical she finds no solution. She and Mr. Seldom have an obvious mutual attraction, in fact the share the film's only kiss. But they are both too vague. You have to guess that he would be a good mate for her, but he is a simply a lawyer without a pot of gold at the end of his rainbow. (Those were the days!)
When financier Gus Trenor --a miscast Dan Aykroyd --rescues her from a heavy debt by investing successfully whatever she's got left (that is, IF he does invest it), his next step is to ask for payment in kind.
When Sim Rosedale (hardly Jewish here, definitely so in the book) asks her for her hand she "will consider the proposal," but nothing comes of this.
The main problem with the film is that it keeps you wondering, makes you puzzled if not generally confused. From what I remember from long ago schooldays, in the book the novelist was the all-seeing eye who made comments and told us what went on inside Lily's head. Not here.
I guess that viewers but non-readers who are kept "on the outside" will be annoyed and frustrated in spite of many qualities in the film, such as often exquisite decors, costumes and photography. Whartonites who are tolerant might not object too much, but exacting Whartonites will.
The larger problem is the filmization of good or great novels. It's a no man's land strewn with mines. Think of it. It is almost a rule that most good movie adaptations are based on little-known or respected or minor books, on popular works not deemed "literature," or else on bad ones. Examples abound in all categories.
From solid literature to classics, faithful and good adaptations are rare. Or else the quality of the resulting movies is such that cuts, changes and infidelities don't affect movies that are filmically impressive. And of course there's the large number of pictures that have only bare-bones connections with the source stories, but succeed as a different medium.
In "The House of Mirth" no character is three-dimensional, therefore convincing. Not the irritatingly vague Lily, not the hazy male or the incomplete supporting female roles. Not even Eleanor Bron, one of the movie's rare non-American performers. She plays the disapproving, rich aunt whose speech, enunciation and pauses feel amateurish in a role that in bygone days would have featured Dame May Whitty or Edna May Oliver. (She's unrecognizable from the charming parts she used to play in the 60s, as in "Bedazzled.")
I like writer-director Terence Davies's modest output, especially his "Distant Voices, Still Lives" (two separate but interconnected films in one) and "The Long Day Closes." These are all based on his dreary life and working-class family in wartime and post-war England. The films are splendid downers in which the only solace for their denizens seemed to be lavishly sampled, mostly American pop songs and Hollywood flicks. Well worth renting.