review for The House of Mirth on AllMovie

The House of Mirth (2000)
by Elbert Ventura review

This adaptation of Edith Wharton's classic novel about the emptiness and cruelty of turn-of-the-century New York high society marks yet another departure for British filmmaker Terence Davies. After earning accolades for his stylized, nostalgia pieces about his working-class upbringing, Davies turned toward adaptation with his 1995 film of John Kennedy Toole's novel The Neon Bible. The House of Mirth, with its purely linear narrative and non-autobiographical content, continues Davies' evolution. The movie stars Gillian Anderson, who gives a shattering performance as Lily Bart, a beautiful socialite whose humble means and sense of integrity combine to cast her out of the glamorous world of the New York affluent. As with another major adaptation of a Wharton novel, Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, the movie depicts the tragic destiny of an individual whose possibilities are circumscribed by an indifferent society. Compounding Lily's circumstances are her own personal failings. Paralyzed by indecision and clinging naïvely to a hazy notion of virtue, Lily marches to her doom with an almost perverse resignation -- there is an air of martyrdom to her downward spiral. Using the device of tableaux vivants as his point of departure, Davies adopts a rigorous and painterly visual scheme that evokes the paradox of a sumptuous milieu governed by repressive mores. Eschewing the elegant voice-over that Scorsese utilized in his film, Davies chooses to leave the story's subtext and psychological undercurrent unspoken. The result is a more elliptical, elusive movie that nonetheless exerts a powerful and heartbreaking pull. The movie, originally made for the Showtime cable television network, was instead picked up for theatrical distribution, and made its U.S. premiere at the 2000 New York Film Festival.