House of Mirth, The: Terence Davies Adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Novel, Starring Gillian Armstrong

Adapted for the screen from Edith Wharton’s beloved 1905 novel, Terence Davies The House of Mirth is a much stronger film than his previous feature, “The Neon Bible.”  It is also more satisfying than “The Age of Innocence,” Scorsese’s 1993 version of Edith Wharton’s other famous book.  Davies treats with respect but not slavish reverence this novel of mores and manners, which was Wharton’s first important fiction.

Viewers expecting a middlebrow Merchant-Ivory production (“Room with a View,” “Howards End”) or Masterpiece Theatre style were disappointed with Davies’ version.  As the critic Rob Nelson wrote: “The ‘masterpiece’s tasteful reserve–the aesthetic that allows the comfy feeling that the plight of characters in corsets and cummerbunds has little to do with our own–remains in aptly short supply.” Davies also refrains from the excessive voice-over narration (by Joanne Woodward) that marred Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, an over-stylized feature to begin with, made even more detached by the mediated narrator.

Wharton’s working title for the book was “The Year of the Rose.”  The final title derives from Ecclesiastes 7:4: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”  Set against the backdrop of New York circa 1890s, the text places its tragic heroine, Lily Bart, in a society described as “hot-house of traditions and conventions.”  Upon publication, the N.Y. Times hailed it as “a novel of remarkable power whose varied elements are harmoniously blended.”

Davies’ version was not the first stage or screen presentation of the book.  In 1906, “The House of Mirth” was adapted to the stage by Edith Wharton herself and Clyde Fitch.  In 1918, there was a silent film adaptation, “The House of Mirth’’ (‘’La Maison du Brouillard’’), made by French director Albert Capellani and starring Katherine Harris Barrymore; it’s considered to be lost.

“The House of Mirth” is Davies’ most accessible and commercial film to date (grossing about $2 million in the U.S.), largely due to its casting.  The ensemble is headed by Gillian Anderson (of TV’s “The X-Files” fame), Laura Linney, Dan Aykroyd, and Eric Stoltz, all estimable actors but not necessarily associated with mainstream Hollywood. Though based on a prestigious literary source, Davies (who also wrote the screenplay) has made a personal work that bears testimony to his distinctive theme, visual style, poetic languor, and grace. Davies builds a mood of omniscient dread with a claustrophobic mise en scène. The period recreation is meticulous, but Davies’ adaptation is so precise and his strategy so austere that the film’s critique also becomes applicable to the present.  The film, like the novel, indicts the morals and mores of New York’s social elite through the grueling tale of a fragile woman who becomes a victim of social prejudice and self-inflicted shame.

Like Hester Collyer, Davies’ heroine of “The Deep Blue Sea,” Lily Bart is a fallen woman who goes down the social ladder. “The House of Mirth” is darker in tone and closure than the 2011 film.  Initially, Lily is of good standing, even holding some power—she rejects an offer of advantageous marriage.  However, torn between desire for luxurious existence and life based on mutual respect and love, Lily ultimately sabotages her chances for marriage.  In the end, she loses the esteem and support of her social circle, dying young, poor, and alone.

The story opens as Lily meets Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), a bachelor lawyer she is attracted to but cannot marry because he is not wealthy enough. Lily’s social status begins to erode when Gus Trenor, the husband of her friend Judy, gives her a large sum of money, and she innocently think it is a rewarding return on investments made for her.  This transaction and her mysterious visit to Gus result in damaging Lily’s standing.

To escape vicious gossip, Lily joins Bertha (Laura Linney) and her husband George Dorset on a European cruise aboard their yacht, the Sabrina.  During the trip, Bertha accuses Lily of adultery with George in order to shift attention from her own infidelity with the poet Ned Silverton. The ensuing scandal ruins Lily, her friends abandon her, and her Aunt Peniston disinherits her.  Descending the social strata, Lily works as a personal secretary until Bertha sabotages her position by turning her employers against her.  Lily then takes a job in millinery, but her poor performance leads to termination.

Simon Rosedale, the Jewish suitor who had proposed when Lily was younger and more reputable, comes back.  But she perceives the offers as a form of blackmail–he plans to use letters she had bought to incriminate Bertha’s affair, thus forcing her to burn them. Eventually, Lily receives her inheritance and pays her debt to Trenor.  However, Lily has become addicted to drugs and dies from an overdose of sleeping pills. Ironically, Selden, the passive-aggressive lawyer who despite relative poverty is the only man she has loved, gains greater intimacy with Lily when she is dead than when she was alive.

What attracted Davies to the book was its structure and heroine: “The House of Mirth” is a tragic melodrama about how materialistic concerns can—and do—damage a frail woman physically and mentally. Lily is an aging society bachelorette, an ambivalent gold digger whom Wharton describes as “a figure to arrest even the suburban traveler rushing to his last train.”  Like others in her milieu, Lily is addicted to the trappings of the upper class, but in order to attain them, she is dependent on the kindness of her nasty old aunt—at least until she gets married.  Perceiving herself as a commodity, she tries to sell herself to the highest bidder, but most of the men she encounters or those who are available are either bullies or adulterers.

Wharton’s narrative, which is replete with satiric details and psychological insights, chronicles the narrowing of options of a woman who has never had many opportunities to begin with. The heroine’s longings make her unavailable to “men of substance” who would provide her status and fortune.  And at the same time, she is vulnerable to humiliation by her rivals. Landing in debt, Lily begins a process of imminent downfall, which continues until her demise.

A martyred woman, Lily personifies the tension between materialistic obsessions and moral principles.  She’s a modern woman who “wants it all”–love and money—but on her own terms and with society’s approval.  As a character, Lily belongs to the same universe as the titular heroines in James Cain’s “Mildred Pierce” and Henry James’ “Daisy Kenyon,” famous novels made into classic women’s pictures of the 1940s, both, incidentally, starring Joan Crawford at her prime.

Some critics complained that Gillian Anderson was not beautiful or refined enough to play Lily.  However, in his film, Davies underemphasizes Lily’s charisma in order to show her as an outsider, a woman whose allure isn’t sufficient enough to disguise her lack of social status. She is driven by the impossible ambition to blend in, to become part of the social fabric. Davies said that he cast Armstrong because he could imagine her as the subject of a John Singer Sargent painting.  In his interpretation, Lily appears to be both magnetic and indistinguishable from her surroundings.   Complicit in marketing herself as a commodity, Lily passes her expiration date and ends up, as she puts it, “on the rubbish heap,” dying devastatingly heartbroken.

In conveying Lily’s slow disintegration, Anderson relies more on body language and expressive gestures than on verbal dialogue. We observe her shifting from seductiveness to desperation and finally to resignation.  Anderson renders commendable performance as a  vulnerable femme, highly aware that one false move, one wrong word, can damage her reputation and affect her already uncertain future.  Perpetually insecure and never comfortable in any position or social interaction, Anderson illustrates Selden’s description of Lily as “a woman who has it in her to be whatever she believed to be.”

Uncharacteristic of his other works, “House of Mirth” presents the story in a seamless linear way. Davies said he saw his goal as making a movie whose watching would be akin to reading Wharton’s novel, cover to cover.  In his adaptation, Davies approximates what the N.Y. Times review predicted: “The discriminating reader who has completed the whole story in a protracted sitting or two must rise from it with the conviction that there are no parts of it which do not properly and essentially belong to the whole. Its descriptive passages have verity and charm, it has the saving grace of humor, its multitude of personages has the semblance of life.”


Gillian Anderon Lily Bart

Dan Aykroyd as Augustus ‘Gus’  Trenor

Eleanor Bron as Mrs. Julia  Peniston, Lily’s Aunt

Terry Kinney as George Dorset

Anthony LaPaglia as Sim Rosedale

Laura Linney as Bertha Dorset.