HOUSE OF MIRTH ***
STARRING: Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz and Anthony LaPaglia
DIRECTOR: Terence Davies
RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes
RATING: R for suggestions of sex
THE LOWDOWN: Adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel about a socialite brought low by penury
Lily Bart smokes, loses money at cards and enters gentleman's rooms unescorted. Sometimes she can be seen lying on manicured lawns, nuzzling a man she's drawn to. When the unmarried socialites of her ilk are arrayed in tableaux based on famous paintings, she is a Watteau Summer. By the time Terence Davies' sumptuous adaptation of Edith Wharton's ironically titled "House of Mirth" is over, she has been brought low by poverty but with honor intact.
Bless old Mrs. Wharton, it's quite a story. And the film is all extraordinarily beautiful to be sure - made with an eye that has looked long and hard at the turn-of-the-century paintings of Sargent and Whistler. And purely as a piece of cinematic technique, it's exceptional. The quick fades in the film give it some of the most graceful transitions between scenes you've ever seen. If you want to know just what it is that film editors do, take a look at "House of Mirth." It was edited with silk gloves and a jeweler's eye.
Underneath all that, though, "House of Mirth" isn't one film but two. In the first hour, most of the actors - especially Gillian Anderson as Lily - are awful. They talk in that kind of silly elocutionary falsity that bad American theater actors use when they're trying to sound British or upper crust. Anderson and Eric Stoltz are supposed to be engaged in erotic flirtation. Their yearnings - especially Anderson's - are clear and powerful. But every time they have to talk, they bat clipped consonants and elongated vowels ("styoopid" instead of "stupid") back and forth.
Almost everyone is overemphatic about their lines as if artificial and an inane singsong were the way to capture drawing room manners and the language of wealth (or what F. Scott Fitzgerald memorably termed the "sound of money" in Daisy Buchanan's voice).
The lines they have to say in rarefied turn-of-the-century New York are brittle, aphoristic and good - "wives may do as they wish. Husbands are expected to be like money: influential and silent." And the submerged erotic currents beneath all that brocade and pomade are palpable. But every other line from the actors' mouths seems to scream "phony" and "inept." It's as if we're trapped in a theater watching a dress rehearsal for what is destined to be a rocky opening night.
Take heart. Everything that American actors are good at - emotion, heart, intensity - takes over in the second half when the story allows everyone to forget how rich and cultivated and historically emblematic they're all supposed to be. Anderson - a hauntingly melancholy beauty with a strange adenoidal tendency to leave her mouth open at inopportune times (back then, socialites didn't do such things) - comes into her own and eventually gives a performance that moves you. It isn't every actress who falls flat on her face and has a first-rate comeback, all in the space of one movie, but that's what Anderson does here.
It's impressive but if you want to know why she wasn't nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (as many thought she might be) listen to her godawful line readings in the first half.
Only one actor is completely exempt from the stilted theatricality of this movie's first half - Anthony LaPaglia, the sinister suitor of Lily Bart, the woman brought low by penury and her own independence and honor.
Not everyone, by the way, has been moved by Lily's plight. The great literary historian Van Wyck Brooks, said Lily, "was almost as worldly as the gambling world in which she lost. . . . Lily required "a great deal of money,' as much as the worldlings who shut her out - she also liked excitement and admiration - and the reason she failed was not because her heart was in any other world but she was too half-hearted to play the game."
Many decades of women's liberation have taken place since Brooks wrote that, so that is far from the way anyone sees Wharton's story now - and far from the story being told here.
This one is about a woman trying to burst the chains of an era and a monied caste that cherished its chains and finally succumbing to a social free fall that left her unable to hold a job in a milliner's backroom.
The cast, besides Anderson and Stoltz, is a fine one: Eleanor Bron, Dan Aykroyd, Laura Linney and Elizabeth McGovern. If only they were fine in more than just half a film.