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   THE HOUSE OF MIRTH (2000) 

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CAST
Gillian Anderson
Dan Aykroyd
Eric Stoltz
Eleanor Bron
Terry Kinney
Anthony LaPaglia
Laura Linney
Elizabeth McGovern
Jodhi May

DIRECTED BY
Terence Davies

PURCHASE


DVD



Novel




Time: 140 mins.
Rating: PG
Genre: Romance/Drama


I'm generally a big fan of the historical romace, so when I heard this film was coming out I was quite excited. I had recently started reading the book, but stopped because I figured I'd see the movie and find out how the story ended. Needless to say, I'm glad I at least read some of the story because I'm not sure I'd have had any idea what was going on otherwise. The look of the film was exquisite and with such a talented cast, I just don't understand where it went wrong, but I was painfully confused and bored after the first 20 minutes. Gillian Anderson is a good actress and I was looking forward to seeing her tackle a different type of character than her clinically cold Scully. What a disappointment seeing her forced into a part that is fairly shallow and empty. Lily Bart is supposed to be the belle of the ball, the woman every man in 1900s New York wants to be with. In the novel, she's a strong, intelligent woman who makes bad choices by leading with her heart instead of her head. She believes she's impervious to failure, that her wit and beauty will carry her through to the other side – a successful marriage to a wealthy man. The problem with this adaptation, is that we never get to see this Lily, nor discover what's going on in her pretty little head.

Instead, we get a Lily already on the decline, one who is reactionary, who does nothing to save herself. Maybe this is how the book really portrays her and if that's true, I'm glad I didn't finish it. I can't believe I'm saying this, but a little voice-over would have gone a long way to illuminating the missing pieces of the puzzle. Every scene felt like a jump cut, like you were dropped into the middle of a conversation and were trying to catch up. I swear if I hadn't known the basics of the story I would have been forever lost. I understand it's a long novel with many characters and I'm sure that the screenwriter did his best to include all the key scenes, which I think is part of the problem. Perhaps a little story trimming was in order. There were certain characters I just didn't care about. I know people want a novel turned to film to be true to the story, but the fact is, for me, it just has to capture the essence of the story and characters. Though Anderson and the other actors were good, I just didn't ever feel connected to her or her plight.


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

The story begins with an unplanned meeting between Lily (Anderson) and Lawrence Selden (Stoltz), an acquaintance she likes very much but could never consider as romantic material since he actually works for a living. Lawrence is amused and attracted to Lily, as most men are, and is somewhat flirtatious with her since he's aware she'd never take him seriously. On her way to the train station she runs into Sim Rosedale (LaPaglia), a man who's dying to get into high society and has the money, but not the connections needed for entrance. Lily, being on the inside, wants nothing to do with him, but as her circumstances change, she will come to be in his debt and wish that she had been more gracious. On the train she meets the reason she was invited to Bellimont in the first place – Percy Gryce (Quigley). Gryce has a great deal of money, but is quite staid and conservative. He disapproves of many of Lily's habits – smoking and gambling to name a few – however, her charm makes him forgive her minor vices.

That is until Seldon arrives and Lily forgets herself. She has only a modest stipend to live on and if she doesn't marry soon, she will be in way over her head. Despite herself, she is attracted to Lawrence and breaks several engagements with Percy, believing that her grace and charms will fix the situation. Unfortunately, Bertha Dorset (Linney) considers Lawrence her pet and takes out her displeasure with Lily by poisoning Percy against her. Lily is unconcerned, but Bertha is a woman not to be taken lightly and makes it her mission to destroy Lily. Maybe if Lily wasn't constantly in money trouble, she'd have payed more attention. Instead, to help alleviate her woes, she turns to Gus Trenor (Aykroyd), the husband of her dear friend, for advice on investing her meagre sums. He's delighted to be of assisstance and soon has her rolling in money. What she fails to realize is that he's been paying her from his own pocket. He's quite aware she cannot pay him back monetarily, so he asks for payment in her services, so to speak. Lily is outraged at being so deceived, but her behavior has been conspicuous and the Trenors are much more powerful than she.

She begs her aunt for help – the debt is extreme, $9000 – but her aunt has been turned against her by her cousin with tales of smoking, gambling and carrying on with married men. This debt becomes her undoing. She tries to carry on, but Bertha manuveurs her into a corner and precipitates her complete ruin. To prideful to accept help from Rosedale or love from Selden, she joins the working class trying to make enough money to survive. Her aunt's death brings her some hope, but she is left with a mere $10,000 of that fortune, which is already spoken for. Since she has no real skills, she is virtually unemployable. To numb her pain, she begins taking a dangerous sleep aid from a prescription stolen from an old employer. Her desperation deepens to the point of no return, where she considers blackmailing Bertha Dorset with love letters written to Selden that Lily purchased from his building's cleaning lady. One visit could make the nightmare end and regain her entrance to society. However, Lily is unable to hurt the man she loves, no matter how degrading her situation has become. In her final visit to Lawrence, she breaks down trying to explain her feelings to him, but it's of no use. No one can help her now.

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH is a powerful story about a single woman's precarious place in 1900's society. It's actually beautifully shot with amazing locations and wonderful costumes. What never quite comes together is the story and characters. Anderson and Stoltz have pretty good chemistry as two people who can never fully explore their true feelings. Anderson breaks your heart in the scene where Lily loses control, but the emotions poured forth are too little too late. Stoltz is also good, his desire for Lily ever apparent in his eyes. As for the others, it seems like everyone is acting in a different movie. Aykroyd is foolish and completely unbelievable; LaPaglia puts in another quietly wonderful performance; Linney is evil, yet ridiculous at the same time; McGovern, a bright light given too little to do.

One of the other disturbing aspects was the utter lack of music. The score was non-existent, which was incredibly strange. I think that many film maker's fall back on the music to make a point and often go too far, causing the score to be intrusive. However, there is a reason for it, to help illuminate emotions and create mood, something this film was sorely lacking. I truly like all of the actors, so I desperately wanted to like this movie, but I just didn't. It was too slow and superficial. Everyone certainly tried their best, but if you want to see a great movie about a suppressed love that can never be, check out REMAINS OF THE DAY. As for THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, don't be fooled by the title. This is a depressing romantic drama that has it's moments, but not enough to make it enjoyable.



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