The House of Mirth

UK/USA 2000

Reviewed by Kevin Jackson


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

New York, 1905-7. Lily Bart, a young lady of slender means, arrives in New York and meets her friend Lawrence Selden, a bookish bachelor, who invites her to his flat. Leaving, Lily is spotted by rich businessman Sim Rosedale. Staying at the country retreat of friends Judy and Gus Trenor, Lily woos the wealthy but boring Percy Gryce, but he rejects her advances on learning of her gambling debts. Later, she and Lawrence kiss, although they skirt the issue of marriage. When staying at the country house of her aunt, Mrs Peniston, who pays her a modest allowance, Lily purchases letters which reveal that Lawrence had an affair with married socialite Bertha. On hearing of her money difficulties, Gus Trenor offers to invest Lily's savings, and introduces her to Rosedale, whose offer of marriage she refuses. Later, after he reveals he used his own money to augment her savings, Gus makes a move on Lily, which she angrily rejects. Gus then demands she pay back the money he invested for her.

Facing mounting debts, Lily joins Bertha and her husband George on vacation in Monte Carlo, not realising that Bertha is using her as a shield for an affair. Bertha then accuses her of seducing George. Outcast by her circle, left only a small sum when her aunt dies, and unwilling to use the incriminating letters to tarnish Bertha, Lily falls down the social scale, from secretary to drudgery in a milliner's to unemployment and chloral addiction. Bertha visits Selden and throws his letters into the fire. Using a loan from Rosedale to pay off her debt to Trenor, Lily takes a lethal dose of chloral; Selden - having retrieved the letters from the fire - discovers her body.


"The world is vile," murmurs one of Lily Bart's few loyal allies, Carry Fisher, as she reflects sadly on the cruel stupidity with which their social circle has cast out and is gradually destroying her young friend. In Edith Wharton's novel, it is Lily herself who speaks the line, but writer-director Terence Davies is wise to have changed it: it resonates in his film as a grimly impartial summing-up, not as the personal grievance of a lady who has run out of luck. For the world of The House of Mirth is indeed largely vile, one in which the unprincipled and vigorously hypocritical, like Gus Trenor and Bertha Dorset, tend to triumph while the idealistic (Lily grows braver, less venal and more magnanimous as her worldly fortunes fail) are branded as immoral and ruined, unless cushioned, like Lily's lover Selden, by enough money and the appropriate chromosomes.

This beady-eyed view of the early 20th-century's nouveaux riches (a rather different tribe from the Old New Yorkers of The Age of Innocence, but no less savage at heart) was Wharton's own, and Davies has preserved its astringent spirit in bringing it to the screen. It's rare that a period film, however seriously intended, doesn't fall at least half in love with its fancy frocks and immaculate crockery, but The House of Mirth is quite different. Though handsomely designed (by Don Taylor) and lovingly shot (by Remi Adefarasin) - there's one dissolve, from pellets of rain lashing the surface of a cold pond to the softly glowing waters of the Mediterranean, that's almost excessively gorgeous - it never loses sight of the fact that the pretty graces of this world are also, as it were, the trophies of barbarism.

Wharton was keenly interested in the writings of her contemporary Thorstein Veblen, the first sociologist to make the insolent comparison between the leisure classes and ancient warrior hordes; Veblen, one suspects, would have appreciated the unbeglamoured eye of Davies' film. Indeed, far from diluting the remorseless quality of Wharton's social tragedy with the familiar backward-glancing nostalgia of most costume pieces, Davies has, if anything, accentuated its melancholy.

A modest budget no doubt played the decisive part in having Lily walk on to the screen alone at the beginning of the film, rather than weaving her way through the afternoon crush of Grand Central, but the effect is more than apt: the image of Lily emerging from a cloud of railway steam evokes Anna Karenina, and hints proleptically at her sticky end. And when we arrive at that sticky end, Davies certainly out-does Wharton in bleakness: where the novel's heroine drifts off into a more or less accidental drugged sleep and the soothing fantasy of nursing a child, the film terminates in unambiguous suicide.

As with Davies' trilogy of autobiographical short films, there are sequences in The House of Mirth (the misleading title, taken from the Old Testament, was applied by newspapers to an insurance scandal of 1905) so gloomy they border on the excruciating; as in those shorts, the redemptive qualities here are eloquence, precision and grace. If Gillian Anderson's first scenes bear the inescapable trace of her role in The X Files, she rapidly sheds it. Apart from her un-Lily-like inability to pronounce French words appropriately, she is not merely plausible but exceptionally powerful, and she makes Lily's final self-lacerating encounter with Selden horribly real.

Anderson more than vindicates Davies' idiosyncratic casting decision (as, in a different register, does Dan Aykroyd, whose smug violence as Trenor is miles away from anything he's shown on screen before), and lends both sympathy and dignity to a character who could too easily provoke - as she sometimes appears to provoke even in Edith Wharton - impatience and scorn. Fine as she is, though, the film's finest quality is its typically quiet attentiveness to tone of voice, posture, nuances of facial expression - Anderson proves herself a grand mistress of that most elusive look, the crestfallen. It's a remarkable, if sometimes harrowing adaptation: beautifully intelligent, intelligently beautiful.


Terence Davies
Olivia Stewart
Terence Davies
Based on the novel by
Edith Wharton
Director of Photography
Remi Adefarasin
Michael Parker
Production Designer
Don Taylor
©Granada Film Limited and FilmFour Limited
Production Companies
Granada presents in association with The Arts Council of England/ FilmFour/The Scottish Arts Council/Showtime/ Glasgow Film Fund a Three Rivers production
Developed with the support of the MEDIA Programme of the European Union
Supported by the National Lottery through The Arts Council of England and The Scottish Arts Council
Glasgow Film Fund is financed by the Glasgow Development Agency and the City of Glasgow Council
With the kind support of the Glasgow Film Office
Executive Producers
Bob Last
Pippa Cross
Alan J. Wands
Production Co-ordinator
Mandy McKay
Production Manager
Wendy Broom
Unit Manager
Tony Hood
Location Managers
Sarah Lee
2nd Unit:
Valerie Bresso
Tony Hood
Sarah Lee
Anita M. Patel
Michael Solinger
2nd Unit Director/ Supervisor
Sarah Lee
Assistant Directors
Guy Travers
William Booker
Nanna Mailand-Hansen
Script Supervisor
Pat Rambaut
Billy Hopkins
Suzanne Smith
Kerry Barden
Julia Duff
2nd Unit Photography
Chris Plevin
Visual Effects
Peerless Camera Co London
Special Effects
Stuart Murdoch
2nd Unit:
Ricky Farns
Additional Editing
Martin Brinkler
Art Directors
Diane Dancklefsen
Jo Graysmark
Set Decorator
John Bush
Costume Designer
Monica Howe
Wardrobe Supervisor
Ann Taylor Cowan
Jan Harrison Shell
Gillian Anderson:
Eva Marieges Moore
Make-up/Hair Artists
Meg Speirs
Dianne Millar
Chrissie Powers
Musical Director
Adrian Johnston
Terry Davies
Music Supervisor
Heather Bownass
Nigel Acott
"Oboe Concerto in D minor slow movement" - Ferenc Erkel Chamber Orchestra; "String Quartet no.2 in D" - Borodin String Quartet; "Cosi Fan Tutte - La mia Dorabella", "Cosi Fan Tutte - Soave sia il vento" - Slovak Philharmonic Chorus;, "Rondo" from "3rd String Quartet"; "Shtiler Shtiler" - Melanie Pappenheim; "The Lark" menuet allegretto third movement" - the Hagen Quartett; "Cosi Fan Tutte - Overture"- Orchestra & Chorus "La Petite Bande"; "Rohtko Chapel - movement 4" - Melanie Pappenheim
Sound Recordist
Louis Kramer
Re-recording Mixer
Paul Hamblin
Supervising Sound Editor
Catherine Hodgson
Dialogue Editor
Stewart Henderson
ADR Mixer
Ted Swanscott
Ted Swanscott
Michael Redfern
Debbie Kaye
Gillian Anderson
Lily Bart
Dan Aykroyd
Gus Trenor
Eleanor Bron
Mrs Peniston
Terry Kinney
George Dorset
Anthony LaPaglia
Sim Rosedale
Laura Linney
Bertha Dorset
Jodhi May
Grace Stepney
Elizabeth McGovern
Carry Fisher
Eric Stoltz
Lawrence Selden
Penny Downie
Judy Trenor
Pearce Quigley
Percy Gryce
Helen Coker
Evie Van Osburgh
Mary MacLeod
Mrs Haffen
Paul Venables
Jack Stepney
Serena Gordon
Gwen Stepney
Lorelei King
Mrs Hatch
Linda Marlowe
Madame Regina
Anne Marie Timoney
Miss Haines
Claire Higgins
Mrs Bry
Ralph Riach
Lord Hubert Dacy
Brian Pettifer
Mr Bry
Philippe de Groussouvre
Ned Silverton
Trevor Martin
Jennings the butler
David Ashton
Lesley Harcourt
Mattie Gormer
Mark Dymond
Paul Morpeth
Pamela Dwyer
Edith Fisher
Kate Wooldridge
parlour maid
Graham Crammond
Roy Sampson
Dorset butler
Alyxis Daly
Joanne Bett
Mary Goonan
Gowan Calder
Morag Siller
millinery girls
Film Four Distributors
12,635 feet
140 minutes 24 seconds
Dolby Digital
In Colour
2.35:1 [Hawk Anamorphic]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011