The House of Mirth

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“The House of Mirth” begins with Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) walking through a train station in New York. She has missed her train and will have to wait another two hours. Yet she is not distressed. She has money, social status and time on her hands. She is the very picture of gentility, composure and dignity

By the end of the movie, when she’s making hats in a factory and swilling prescription medication like it’s chocolate milk, we get a sense of how far she has fallen. Credit Gillian Anderson for making this heartbreaking transformation, but credit director Terence Davies for making the film too long and too slow to be worthy of Anderson’s efforts.

Set in 1905, “The House of Mirth” is about Lily’s dilemma. Society has no place for unmarried women, but Lily doesn’t particularly want to get married. Yet she knows she must, and is perceived by many as one who will get her hooks into the first man she can find — which makes the men nervous, which makes it even harder to find a husband.

She remarks on the double standard of marriage — “A girl must (get married), and a man, if he chooses” — but she’s not exactly a feminist. She realizes the unfairness of it all, but has little notion of trying to effect social reform. This makes her even more stuck, of course.

Matters are worsened by some gambling debts she acquires, and by her decreasing income. Bachelor Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) seems her best option for marriage, but they prefer a cat-and-mouse thing. Wealthy businessman Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) proposes, but Lily finds him loathsome. Friend Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd), who is married, makes an indecent proposal which she declines.

The intrigue, such as it is, comes when Lily finds a series of letters her married friend Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney) wrote to Lawrence, making it clear they had an affair. If she’d use these letters for blackmail, she’d be set for life. But Lily has principles … to a point, anyway.

The film vividly re-creates a world most of us are unfamiliar with: the world where manners and money (and nothing else) are important. People sit around idly, engaging in banal chit-chat, having tea and saying things like, “If obliquity were a vice, we should all be tainted.” Rumors of an unmarried woman spending time alone with a married man are as damning as if she actually slept with him. Two of Lily’s actual lines, spoken when she is in absolute desperation, are: “I am at the end of my tether!” and “I am on the rubbish heap!”

And therein lies the film’s major problem: It’s so mannered and discreet that it’s dull. Without a doubt, the characters are painted the way socialites in turn-of-the-century New York actually behaved. That doesn’t make them interesting to a modern viewer, though. It makes them an artifact.

This has always been, I maintain, the trouble with the Merchant-Ivory genre of movies, of which this may be called a somewhat dark example. It’s quaint, for a while, to look at these people’s little lives. But a movie about idleness almost can’t help being idle itself. A movie about people who are shallow and vapid is bound to share those characteristics.

Anderson, though, is excellent as Lily Bart. Where the film’s muted tone works to its advantage is that when Lily finally does break down and cry, it’s such a change from what she’s been doing that it’s extraordinarily effective.

C+ (; PG, some mild adult themes.)

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