"With Edith Wharton, the gloves are off and there's blood on the walls." So says director Terence Davies, who delivers the author's 1905 novel to the screen in all its full, flinty vigor. The delicate dynamite of Gillian Anderson in a performance that deserves to be widely celebrated brings a grieving heart to this vicious social satire. In looking at greedy old New York at the turn of the last century, Davies finds only a few things changed about the pulse of sex and the city. Who's in and who's out among the filthy rich is still a killing game that takes no prisoners.
Anderson, leaving behind her X-Files role as the alien-chasing agent Scully, portrays Lily Bart, a social climber on the verge of a calamitous fall. Davies and camera master Remi Adefarasin (Elizabeth) give us a stunning first look at Lily, emerging from a flattering cloud of train steam at Grand Central station. Elegantly dressed, gloved and corseted, carrying a parasol and wearing a sweeping hat with a veil, Lily looks like a bird in full plumage. Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz), the lawyer whom Lily loves against her better instincts — he's not rich and must work for a living — tells her, "You're such a wonderful spectacle." And so she is. But Lily hedges her bets with Lawrence to snag a wealthy husband, and, failing that, she finds herself embroiled in a scandal that makes her a social outcast. Stripped of her ornaments, Lily discovers something less chic and harder to live with: moral courage.
Davies is no less ruthless than Wharton in his portrait of careless cruelty. This gifted British director, best known for 1988's Distant Voices, Still Lives and 1992's The Long Day Closes — tone poems to his working-class childhood — has never pressed heavily on the plot button. But in adapting Wharton's novel, without cheating by updating her language to a modern idiom, Davies attains a narrative purity of shocking intimacy and emotional force. It's a crowning achievement.
Look closely at the shrewd way Davies stages the chance meeting of Lily and Lawrence at Grand Central. Lily has two hours to kill until her train leaves for a husband-hunting weekend at the suburban home of fat cat Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd) and his wife, Judy (Penny Downie). "How nice of you to come to my rescue," she tells Lawrence, who invites her for tea at his flat. "I'll risk it," she says, flirtatiously, but Anderson lets us see the strain that the pretense of coy femininity takes on Lily.
On the flat, Lily tries a more direct approach, confessing her dependence on a man for power and position. "A girl must marry," she says, "but a man only if he chooses." Lawrence offers Lily a cigarette. You've got to hand it to Anderson: Not since Bette Davis has an actress better used a cigarette as erotic punctuation. Davies packs more smolder into a simple moment — Lily blowing a gentle puff of smoke into Lawrence's face — than a lesser director could accomplish with nudity and penetration.
Lily has a genius for doing the wrong thing at the right time. She asks for financial help from Gus — Aykroyd plays him with just the right note of piggish charm — then recoils when he expects to be paid back in sexual favors. She alienates Bertha Dorset (a memorably nasty Laura Linney), the social leader who falsely brands Lily as a home wrecker. She is rebuffed by the once-courtly Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), the nouveau riche Jew who also knows the sting of social exclusion. LaPaglia gives the role a brutal honesty that removes the anti-Semitic taint of the caricature that Wharton created. Only Stoltz fails to realize the potential of his role.
No matter. The film belongs to Anderson, who handles Lily's descent from decoration to dishrag with uncanny skill. Deprived of the material things that she had used to define herself, Lily is forced to face a reality. The truth both strengthens and destroys her. The House of Mirth is not one of those teacup and doily movies; it's harsh and disturbing. Davies does superlatively right by Wharton. There's blood on the walls.