The House of Mirth is a beautiful film; an admirable adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel about New York high society.Set between 1905 and 1907, book and film chart the gradual, but implacable, decline of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson). Fast approaching a spinsterish thirty, and the recipient of only a frugal allowance from her mean aunt (a haughty Eleanor Bron), Lily's prospects for comfort depend on a secure marriage. Her quest for an appropriate husband is finally thwarted by her own pride, and feelings for Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz).
Director Terence Davies has penned a literate script, which expertly captures the key moments and characters of Wharton's novel. He also successfully evokes the peculiar relationship between Selden and Bart. There's no simple reason why they don't marry - it's a combination of societal factors, false expectations and their own misunderstanding. The languorous pacing of The House of Mirth is occasionally draining, but there are compensations in the sumptuous look of the film: Remi Adefarasin's pristine cinematography, the luscious costume and production design, and exteriors (the stately homes and parks of Glasgow substituted for New York).
The House of Mirth is like a cynical Pride and Prejudice, without Jane Austen's fairytale ending. Bart's gender and lack of familial connections are a distinct handicap to retaining her precarious position in society. Worse, her status has given her no useful training for survival once she transgresses the unspoken boundaries of the rich.
Anderson is a vivid Lily, making every emotion plain without overplaying, and inspiring sympathy towards her plight. Among the large supporting cast, I was most taken with Laura Linney, who plays prize manipulator Bertha Dorset with cold relish, and Anthony LaPaglia who brings something appealing to the oily Sim Rosedale.This is a classy rendering of a classic book.