This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
In his 2000 film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1905 masterpiece The House of Mirth, writer-director Terence Davies downplays the novel-of-manners aspects of the material. The intrigues of Gilded Age high society are given just enough attention to keep the storyline clear, and Wharton’s incisive cultural critique feels muted as a result. Davies instead emphasizes and expands on the unrequited romance between protagonist Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) and the attorney Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). The story still packs a wallop; the dramatic core--Lily’s tragic downfall--is very much intact, and quite powerfully realized. A great deal of the credit for the film’s effectiveness belongs to Anderson’s exquisite performance. She has the beauty the role calls for, and she conveys Lily’s cultivated society poise effortlessly. In the early scenes, Lily’s resentment of the obligation to marry comes across with a minimum of fuss, and as the film progresses, Anderson takes the viewer right inside the tensions between the character’s grief, anger, and near-indomitable integrity. The only unconvincing element of the character is her passion for Selden. But that’s more due to the miscasting of Stoltz than anything else. He comes across much the same as he did in his early teenage roles, and his manner is far too callow for the part. (His juvenile-sounding voice undercuts him the most.) Anderson tries hard to make the romantic scenes work--Lily is literally panting with desire for Selden at times--but one doesn’t believe in her character’s attraction to him for a moment. But Stoltz aside, Davies shows an unerring instinct for casting. Dan Aykroyd is an inspired choice to play Gus Trenor, and Laura Linney is malevolent, conniving perfection as Bertha Dorset. The other supporting players--including Anthony LaPaglia, Elizabeth McGovern, Jodhi May, Terry Kinney, and Eleanor Bron--are uniformly excellent. The film is not an ideal adaptation of the novel, but it’s an extremely good one. Davies and his cast have brought the material to the screen with thought, craft, and care.