The ladies wear elaborate dresses and terrifyingly large hats. The gentlemen are lacquered and precise. Etiquette is a matter of gravest importance, and the appearance of impropriety, however false the impression, can ruin a reputation and even a life. The novels of Edith Wharton teem with headstrong men and women chafing, adapting, risking, and tripping over the strictures of turn of the century New York society.
But The House of Mirth, Terence Davies’ magnificent adaptation of Wharton’s masterpiece about the folly of one marriageable young woman who pays tragically for her restlessness, burns through all the fussy doilies, precious teacups, and worn out poses of period costume dramas with such brilliance as to look like a brand new art form. This stunning movie — one of the very best of the year — makes a much read American classic feel new and freshly devastating.
Even more astonishing: Gillian Anderson, sprung from her ”X Files” armor of dark suits and even darker broody stares, gives a career igniting performance as proud, kind, foolish, tragic Lily Bart, whose need to marry rich thwarts her opportunity to marry happy. Indeed, Anderson’s acute understanding of Lily’s self destructive mixture of passion and naïveté, her terrible refusal to take her own desires seriously — watch her delicate voluptuousness as she accepts a cigarette, the way she tilts her heart shaped face — sets the tone for startlingly good performances all around.
Laura Linney, currently also triumphing in ”You Can Count on Me,” delivers a chilling turn as Lily’s manipulative, competitive, treacherous ”friend” Bertha Dorset, who, in her bitter jealousy, can’t stand to see Lily eke a moment’s reward. But Linney and the superb Terry Kinney as Bertha’s ineffectual husband, George, blend seamlessly with a motley cast that also includes Anthony LaPaglia as crass, rich Sim Rosedale, Elizabeth McGovern as Lily’s true friend Carry (a made for the movies composite character in Davies’ screenplay), and Jodhi May as a dangerous mouse of a girl. And as Lawrence Selden, the man exciting enough for Lily to love but not rich enough for her to wed, Eric Stoltz’s usually half mast energy rises, fired by Anderson’s contained heat.
The British born Davies (”The Neon Bible”), a filmmaker of rapturous imagery, is partial to moments of beauty out of a Sargent painting. He’s also a music lover who relishes his swoons: Why else include that most ravishing of trios from Mozart’s opera ”Cosí fan tutte”? But, in his surest demonstration of artistry, the director also knows how to sustain stillness. The moments of silence as Lily stands in upholstered rooms, taking stock of her lifelong exhaustion, are as powerful as the showiest scarves of sound knitted by less confident directors who don’t trust moviegoers with profound literary solitude for even an instant.