The House of Mirth

"I thought that I could manage my own life, but I have been foolish, foolish to the point of being compromised."

The characters in The House of Mirth are unspeakably cruel to one another and yet no one fires any shots or throws any punches. The film, based on Edith Wharton’s classic novel, insists that you don’t need any of those things to destroy a person. The ultimate irony, of course, is that the people who bring about the downfall of the protagonist for the most part have no intention of doing so. Is it really possible, we think, for a self-proclaimed civilized society to completely abandon a person and leave her to die?

Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), an upper-middle-class New York City gentlelady right after the turn of the century, is rapidly approaching middle age and yet she remains single. She is looking for a way out of marriage, a way that simply isn’t there. She lives on the good graces of her wealthy aunt, attending proper social gatherings and consummating perfuctory courtship with the available gentlemen. But her heart isn’t in it. She doesn’t have anything against the idea of marriage itself, but she doesn’t want to be compromised by letting another manage her life (ironic, because her life is already being financed by another).

Her choices are varied. Percy Gryce (Pearce Quigley) is a wealthy antique collector who could easily provide for Lily, but he’s too dull, too uninteresting to even initiate a conversation with, nevermind marry. Sim Rosedale (Anthony Lapaglia) is attractive and wealthy, but his proposal sounds too much like a marriage of convenience. George Dorset could fit the bill if he wasn’t married to Bertha (Laura Linney), a particularly nasty high-society type who suspects that Lily might be after her husband — not true — and gets her in some trouble that I won’t reveal here. Finally, Lily’s feelings towards Lawrence Selden (Eric Stolz) are the closest she allows herself to approach love, but the meager lawyer doesn’t make enough money to support her, thus making a marriage pointless.

When Lily’s aunt dies, leaving almost everything to her snobby daughter, her situation grows desperate. She hobbles around from job to job, eventually finding herself unfit for each. Her “friends” offer to help, but Lily, wary of being compromised, keeps them all at a distance, and eventually they back off and let her continue on her downward spiral. As the film builds towards its tragic end, we realize that despite being surrounded by ostensibly well-intentioned acquaintances, Lily is about as alone as any person could be.

Gillian Anderson easily breaks free of her X-Files Scully stereotype in the lead role. She’s in every scene, and she proves that she can carry a movie, but her biggest achievement is pulling off the emotional complexities of her character. She’s saddled with the monumental task of portraying a woman who must conform to society’s standards of propriety and projecting the film’s undercurrent of anger seething right below the surface, all at the same time. That she manages to do these things is a testament to her subtle, often unnoticed chops as an actress, as well as her promising future on the big screen.

My unconscious philosophy regarding crying at the movies is that my tears have to be earned. Rarely is a film that affecting; romantic weepers and adorable outcast stories a la Simon Birch don’t usually do it for me. The House of Mirth did. There’s enough depth to the characters and significance to the plot that the tragedy in the film’s latter half means something. And the film, with its cruel ironies and barely concealed rage means something as well.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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The Window

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Score: B+

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Score: B

Street of Chance

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Score: C

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