March 1, 2001

Solid Construction

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“A woman must marry,” declares Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) in the beginning of Terence Davies’ film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth. This societal dictate casts an ominous shadow over the film and serves as the binding force on the choices Lily makes as she moves in the aristocratic society of New York City at the turn of the century.

The film begins with an encounter between Lily and bachelor Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz, Pulp Fiction), who is just below the upper-class status that Lily struggles to maintain. This scene reveals a central conflict in the story — their desire to have a relationship and the impossibility of its realization due to money. The first half of the film moves at a leisurely pace appropriate to the people it depicts. Lily rejects an eligible bachelor and engages in a scheme to pay off gambling debts, setting in motion a chain of events whereby she disgraces herself and incurs the wrath of her aunt, thus compromising her foothold in society.

Following a dreamy interlude, Lily travels to the Mediterranean aboard the yacht of a friend, Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney, as irritating here as in The Truman Show). Lily’s inability to read the machinations of others, coupled with her friend’s duplicity, leaves her stranded in the Mediterranean and made a victim of the Dorsets and the pettiness of her class.

From this point forward, the film’s action hastens, as Lily moves on a downward trajectory from her original position to a member of the working class. Denied her aunt’s inheritance, and having rejected offers of marriage from wealthy men, few choices remain for Lily.

Although The House of Mirth is long (at about two-and-a-half hours) and rather morose, the plot propels it forward. If one does not take an interest in the plot, the visual aspects of the film still make for an exciting visual experience. The d