Lily Bart is a glittering socialite on the lookout for a wealthy husband, while suppressing her feelings for real love Lawrence Selden. Lily's world collapses, however as, falsely accused of having an affair with a married man, she is shunned by society.
Admirably avoiding the overwhelming surfeit of period detail that crushes most costume dramas, British writer/director Terence Davies' adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel vividly evokes a sense of social hierarchies and veiled viciousness, but fails to dramatise the arising consequences in any compelling way. Like Todd Solondz's Happiness, the title of the movie couldn't be more ironic, as there isn't an ounce of humour in the lives of these rich, repressed New Yorkers. Yet the joyless tone seeps off the screen and ultimately takes its toll on the viewer.
There is something about Wharton's intelligence and subtlety that attracts the more interesting of filmmakers - see Martin Scorsese's masterful adaptation of The Age Of Innocence - and Davies would seem an ideal candidate to evoke a bygone age without resorting to chocolate box pictorialism. Eschewing the non-linear approach of Davies' previous work, such as the autobiographical Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the film moves at a funereal pace. Moreover, Davies' skill at creating beautiful, emotionally resonant images has been blunted by an endless parade of talky scenes.
Cleverly, Davies populates his film with people not generally known for period drama, yet fails to utilise the casting coups in any interesting way. Anderson is the perfect model for Lily's icy beauty - apparently Davies had never seen an episode of The X-Files before casting her - yet she is unable to get under her character's skin, failing to expose Lily's under-the-surface desires in any involving way. Elsewhere, good actors like Linney, LaPaglia, Aykroyd and Elizabeth McGovern are strangely stilted, with Stoltz emerging as the standout, playing the laid-back love of Lily's life. In short, not totally without intrigue, but slightly soporific.
Displaying impeccable credentials, The House Of Mirth contains all the seeds needed to make a powerful movie - Terence Davies nails Edith Wharton's obsessions with stifling etiquette, and the sense of social hypocrisy is tangible. Yet, never mining the emotional content to its full potential.