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"THE HOUSE OF MIRTH"
(2000) (Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A single woman of the early 1900s finds her high society status crumbling when others question and/or set out to destroy her reputation.
PLOT:
It's 1905 New York and Lily Bart (GILLIAN ANDERSON) is a strong but restrained, single woman in an era and upper crust society where women her age have already been long married or risk being considered old maids. That's not to say that she's lacking in suitors. Instead, none of them seem quite right to her.

She shares a mutual attraction with lawyer Lawrence Selden (ERIC STOLTZ), but he doesn't want to marry her. Wealthy businessman Sim Rosedale (ANTHONY LAPAGLIA) wants to do just that, but more for a business/societal arrangement than for love. Meanwhile, inventor Percy Gryce (PEARCE QUIGLEY) seems like a good catch, but Lily's efforts regarding him are constantly thwarted by Bertha Dorset (LAURA LINNEY), a married woman with a reputation for delighting in making people miserable.

Her conservative husband, George (TERRY KENNEY), seems interested in Lily, especially due to Bertha's flirtatious and possibly adulterous ways with other men, but can't bring himself to divorce her. As such, Lily lives with her Aunt Julia (ELEANOR BRON) and cousin Grace Stepney (JODHI MAY), attending her inner circle's many events with acquaintances Gus (DAN AYKROYD) and Judy Trenor (PENNY DOWNIE), and confiding in her friend, Carry Fisher (ELIZABETH McGOVERN).

Since Lily has something of a gambling debt and only gets an occasional allowance from her aunt, Gus decides to help her make some money through investments, although his intentions aren't purely financial. As word gets out about the two of them being seen together, coupled with Bertha's veiled efforts to ruin her reputation, Lily suddenly finds herself falling from her society's grace. From that point on, she tries to survive in any way she can.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
In today's society that seemingly has no social restraints and where people air and vent their dirty laundry in letters to advice columns, the Internet and on trash TV shows such as "Jerry Springer," and public displays of both affection and anger are quite common, it's hard to imagine a time when people repressed their feelings and emotions for the sake of appearing proper, prim and respectful.

Of course, it did long, long ago, and while some may argue that such repression only increases stress and thus isn't particularly healthy for the mind, body or soul, there's something to be said about such restraint. Since it's highly unlikely that such dignified or restrained behavior will ever return, one must turn to old movies, TV shows and civil programming such as "Masterpiece Theater" to get such a fix.

Now, for fans of such "old fashioned" material and behavior, they can also get that from "The House of Mirth." That's not to say, however, that the characters appearing within the film are completely civil and without passion. Instead, there's plenty of venom and lust flowing just beneath their staid surfaces, like currents of magma ready to erupt at any moment.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, this latest adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel - others include "The Age of Innocence" and "Ethan Frome" - doesn't have any such volcanic eruptions. The many suppressed feelings and emotions, however, are the fuels that drive this story from start to finish. Some viewers, though, will no doubt think that words such as "fuel" and "drive" are somewhat oxymoronic for this film that moves and unfolds at what generously could be called a glacial pace.

In fact, to those not drawn into those undercurrents of seething suppression or this general type of story and its characters, this is the type of film - at least from a pacing standpoint - that gives such "costume dramas" a bad rap. Yes, it's true, both the story and characters move as if in slow motion and the dialogue the latter enunciates is as methodical as their actions.

Yet, that's what other viewers just so happen to like, and writer/director Terrence Davies' adaptation of Wharton's novel delivers all sorts of loaded dialogue that oozes with and/or contains far deeper meanings and subtext than they appear to on a superficial level.

As in many of Wharton's original works, that's because her characters move within a convention-bound society where one's reputation and standing would be ruined if any sort of outburst or true emotion would be publicly displayed. Such unwritten rules are never explained or explored here, but they're obviously the maxim under which all of the players must abide and exist.

While that may be foreign to many of today's younger viewers, it does make for a tense undercurrent that gives the characters and proceedings a great deal more edge than they initially appear to possess. Although not all of that is explicitly explained and some is left to the viewer's imagination and/or interpretation - for instance, we never really know why one woman seems to have it out for ruining the protagonist other than her briefly being explained as just being that way - the motivations are easy to pick up and follow throughout the story.

Like most other "costume dramas," this picture also has that glorious, Oscar worthy look and feel to it. From the seemingly perfect period costumes to the sumptuous art and production design, the film is nothing short of incessant eye candy to behold.

Of course, and like most any other film of any other genre, a solid story and/or impressive technical credits alone can't carry a picture, with the human element obviously being the most important ingredient. As such, some may think that the film's biggest potential problem would be the casting of actress Gillian Anderson in the lead role.

While she's obviously talented and has appeared in a handful of films such as "Playing By Heart" and "The Mighty," she's obviously best known for her role as FBI agent Dana Scully in the long running TV show, "The X-Files" and its 1998 spin-off film, "The X-Files: Fight the Future." Many such TV performers run the risk of forever being typecast as their TV character - especially if they're in a long running comedy -- and thus often have a hard time being cast and/or accepted in other sorts of roles.

The repetitive nature of such weekly performances usually doesn't allow for much range beyond the character's preset characteristics. As such, there's little doubt that Anderson will have her share of critics and doubters who will question her abilities and/or writer/direct Davies ("The Neon Bible," "The Long Day Closes") choice in casting her, at least before seeing the film. Yet, after watching her commanding and moving performance, it's hard to imagine who might have been better in the role. Don't be surprised to see her earn many accolades and award nominations for her performance here.

She certainly benefits from the solid efforts of the film's supporting cast. Among those playing her character's serious or potential suitors, Eric Stoltz ("Anaconda," "Mask"), Anthony LaPaglia ("Sweet and Lowdown," "Summer of Sam") and Terry Kenney ("Sleepers," "Fly Away Home") are all quite good, while the talented Laura Linney ("You Can Count on Me," "The Truman Show") is perfect playing the story's villainess. Other supporting performances from the likes of Eleanor Bron ("A Little Princess," TV's Absolutely Famous"), Dan Aykroyd ("Diamonds," "Driving Miss Daisy"), Carry Fisher (Elizabeth McGovern ("The Wings of the Dove," Ragtime") and others are also good.

A bit slow, but featuring good performances, a great overall look and all of that thick, underlying tension, the film obviously won't play to all mainstream viewers. Having not read the original novel, I can't attest about how well the filmmakers and cast have adapted the story or how fans of Wharton's work will respond to it. I can say, however, that while it might not do anything for those who've never liked period "costume dramas," for those who do favor such films, they probably won't be disappointed with what's offered here. "The House of Mirth" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 19, 2000 / Posted January 19, 2001


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