The House of Mirth is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Edith Wharton’s seminal novel of the same name. The film earnestly draws from its source material to poignantly and accurately depict the contemptibility of America’s 20th century elite and the society that they spawned. The movie’s set designs and costumes feel transportive and authentic. Terence Davies’ direction and cinematography are elegant and atmospheric. And the script really digs into the emotions that come out of the societal themes that Wharton wants to explore in 1905. *Cliché Alert* This film is not as good as the book. (It leaves out some insightful literary details for the sake of runtime.) However, it does offer a beautiful visual interpretation of the printed work.
The shining light of The House of Mirth is Gillian Anderson as Ms. Lily Bart. Most of us know Anderson as the strong and independent scientist, Dana Scully, from The X-Files. (Shout out to the 1990’s!) That makes this role a bit of an ironic performance because Anderson brings a lot of Scully’s character traits (and her iconic red hair) to this job, but applies them with the nuance of supplication. Anderson masterfully projects intelligence, beauty, but, above all else, she imbues Lily with a crippling sense of vulnerability. There are a catalogue of moments when Anderson must gracefully heave in moments of panic or expressively veil helplessness with confidence. It’s a role that demands a lot from Anderson and she brilliantly delivers.
In addition to Gillian Anderson, the film features an extremely talented supporting cast. The troupe includes Eric Stoltz (the guy who was supposed to play Marty McFly in Back to the Future until Robert Zemeckis ran him off the set) as Lily’s closest friend, Lawrence Selden. There’s Laura Linney (the Byrd family matriarch from Ozark) as Bertha (Jezebel) Dorset. Dan Aykroyd of Ghostbusters fame plays the predatory Gus Trenor. And Anthony LaPaglia is a shockingly noble Sim Rosedale. They all deliver convincing performances that complement the central narrative by contextualizing Lily’s existence. But a couple of characters stand out for the gravity that they add to film.
Lawrence Selden, Sim Rosedale, and Bertha Dorset revolve around Lily like moons do a planet. They’re not always in view, but they loiter. And when they make themselves apparent, they reveal themselves to be spectacles worth beholding. Stoltz portrays Selden with a composure and ease that accentuates the anxiety that Anderson must constantly manage. Laura Linnie plays a despicable Bertha suspiciously well. She nails every scene from the book where Bertha embarrasses Lily. (Between this gig, Ozark, and The Miracle Club, I’m starting to wonder if Linney is just playing exaggerated versions of herself!) Most interestingly, Sim Rosedale offers complexity to the roster by offering a unique perspective of pragmatism. Ultimately, they all work well together to bring Wharton’s criticism of high society to life.
The cinematography helps as well by portending literal and figurative darkness. The film’s lighting is dull, and its palette dingy. (There’s a scene during a will reading and the sequence looks like it’s taking place in a black hole.) The are times when the movie feels drab and lifeless. However, this appears intentional and its effective. For all the money that the characters in The House of Mirth have, nobody seems to actually be having fun! There always seems to be a specter of etiquette, procedure, or expectation. It makes you wonder, “What is the point of the money?!” It’s a strategy that endears Lily to the viewer because witnessing her frustration over bullshit finances is heartbreaking. It makes the project a compelling, honest-to-God tragedy.
The House of Mirth is an entrancing piece of work if you watch it in earnest. With that said, it’s most likely too erudite to really enjoy without having read the book. It’s not terribly salacious, exciting, or funny. But it does remind you of paragraphs, pages, and passages from the text that might have stuck with you. It gives you a fresh opportunity to engage in some reverie. It's a chance to contemplate the issues that Edith Wharton wants to bring to the forefront of social consciousness: class distinctions, gender roles, and the consequences of societal pressures on individuals. Civilized society has its advantages, but a lot of what is has to offer comes from a gilded age.
The House of Mirth is available on most major platforms.