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IN SHORT: Redefining "mirth" for a different century. A good, adult-aimed period piece. [Rated PG for thematic material. 124 minutes]
And now it is time to light a candle, or slaughter a goat or praise whatever God you pray to on whatever day you offer up those prayers, or not if you don't, and thank Terence Davies for toeing the two hour line in his turn of the Twentieth Century period adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel House of Mirth. We don't compare to Source Material and usually have a sense when huge chunks are missing from an adaptation. We didn't get that feeling with Davies' work.
The challenges that come with period pieces are twofold. First, is a story set in 1905-1907 contain material interesting to an audience of 2000+? Second, does what we think about how things were in that time period get in the way of the portrayal of how things are portrayed? Starting with the latter, we were always under the impression that the upper class married off their girls by age twenty-one, lest they be shamed by having an old maid. In the case of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), she is way past that cut off, though she has the excuse of being raised by an aunt. As for the first condition, to say that this is a simple "pride goeth before the fall" story doesn't begin to imply how far Lily can fall or how applause worthy Anderson's performance is.
The year being 1905, even the regular "rich" don't have automobiles. On the fabulously wealthy do, and they have people to drive the things. Most of the well off also seem to have those newfangled telephone machines in their estates, though they still rely on their boys to hustle messages and invitations to their elite circle of friends. It is a very quiet time and a very slow moving time in which the language is different and the social codes are such that it is improper for unmarried young ladies to smoke in public, let alone allow themselves any kind of chaste affection to a suitor. Hand holding is hot stuff and a simple kiss? Whoa. And such is the world that Lily Bart lives in.
Teens will be bored senseless. They (yeah, me, too) get Anderson in a rejuvenated X-Files. Everyone else gets to wonder how the filmmakers recreated New York City on a modest budget. Well, we live here. We do.
It isn't that Lily isn't looking for a mate. She is. She is attractive and clever and quite a catch. But she always seems to make the wrong decisions at the right time, or vice versa. She "makes noise and doesn't put on airs," is far too independent in her thoughts and more than willing to speak her mind. That wasn't the place women were supposed to be in 1905 but it hasn't kept suitors away. Lily has two prospects. Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), a lawyer and the fabulously wealthy and incredibly shy Percy Gryce (Pearce Quigley). While Miss Bart is most attracted to Mr. Selden, it is with Mr. Gryce that she attempts to find common ground, only to have that budding relationship poisoned by a "friend," Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney). Why Bertha has it in for Lily is one of the few open questions left by the script. What does happen, which is key to the resolution of the film, emphasizes the fact that in all great stories, the most moral characters are often the ones who are believed to have no moral standards at all.
Lily lives with her Aunt Julia (Eleanor Bron) and younger cousin Grace Stepney (Jodhi May), has a very modest income and a sizable hidden gambling debt that she is determined to pay off. When she asks Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd), a friend's husband, for investment advice, he is willing to lend a hand and nets her a tidy profit in the stock market. Trenor is not expecting a hand shake in return, if you know what I mean. Lily is incensed at the married man's overture, but she has been seen in public with the man, sans wife, and it is "well known" (ie. gossip is flying) that he is paying her bills. This is not acceptable behavior for a woman of her age and the upper class community, in which her pitiful financial status keeps her at the lowest rung, turns their backs on her.
And so begins a slow and steady slide. A real estate investor Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), approaches Lily with a [proposal] that is more business deal than marriage proposal. She refuses because Mr. Rosedale is a "confirmed bachelor" and his fortune is, simply, the wrong kind of money. Bertha Dorset's husband, George (Terry Kinney),maintains that there could be an alliance once he divorces his philandering wife, but Lily refuses that as well. She has been unwillingly used as a cover for Bertha's deceit and cannot allow any more contact with these people -- even though she is in possession of certain evidence that could destroy Bertha or, at minimum, restore Lily's place in society. It would be, of course, improper to use said evidence, but a woman in decline can only be pushed so far. Now, ostracized from polite society, she has definitely been pushed.
Ah, if The House of Mirth was set in this century, there would be blood on the walls. That, interestingly enough is how a critic explains Wharton's writing in the press notes. Blood on the walls. The social chasm between what were called in their day, "the 400," and the ordinary rabble is such that, and this is never specifically mentioned in the film because it is a concept quite beyond elite thinking, if any person had to associate with the rabble... Oh, the shame. Times were slower in those days. The only person seeming to enjoy Society is the one woman doing her best to screw around behind everyone's back, filling her own personal needs while destroying others to throw off the scent. Society, as a whole, knows exactly what she is doing, but the power of money and control over a weak husband is a very powerful thing.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to House of Mirth, he would have paid...
Don't you hate it when I write in mysterious phrases? The House of Mirth plays out slowly, as it must. But it is filled with well hidden backstabbing, sexual plays, moral statements, gossip characterization at work here. All good stuff.
Gillian Anderson has picked the kind of role that no one ever expected her to be able to do and she has put the naysayers in their place. It is the kind of role that actors give their eye teeth to play and it is one of the better performances of the year.
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