E.M. Forster, Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton--surely someday movie directors will run out of Anglo-American novelists who've negotiated the structures and strictures of high society. Meanwhile, we have Wharton's The House of Mirth to keep us company. I regret to say, however, that this latest throwback to the Gilded Age, which was adapted and directed by England's Terence Davies, isn't the companion one might have hoped for. Pretty to look at but more than a little dull, it's yet another cinematic adaptation that preserves the plot, the theme, even most of the great lines, but not enough of what takes place between the lines, which, in any good novel, is where everything important takes place. "She wishes her audience always to be aware of her firm guiding hand," literary critic Irving Howe has written about Wharton's rather caustic narrative style. Like Austen and James, Wharton hovers over her characters, reading their thoughts and, through her writing tone, commenting on their thoughts. And the screen adapter's job is to somehow get that tone up on the screen--through the camerawork, the editing, the acting, the music, the sets, whatever. Davies has forsworn voiceover narration, which is perhaps a good thing, but he also seems to have forsworn camerawork. In the filming of it, The House of Mirth lacks mirth. Instead, it just kind of sits there, like a petulant child dressed up in her Sunday best. Like Wharton's The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth is about the price you pay if you violate the social code, and the price you pay if you don't. Its heroine, Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), has everything it takes to conquer New York society except 1) money and 2) the willingness to do everything it takes to get that money. She's beautiful, charming, clever, even conniving, and she lives at a time (the early 1900s) when there's only one option for a woman who has no fortune of her own: marrying into someone else's. But though there are several eligible bachelors to choose from (none of them particularly appealing), it's time to seal the deal. At 29, Lily must invest her beauty quickly and wisely. A predicament worthy of a tragic heroine, and Lily is on her way down, of course. But Anderson, though very effective when Lily hits rock-bottom, doesn't have what it takes to summon up thoughts of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary. Nor, in my mind, does she quite have what it takes to play Lily Bart. Then again, who does? Lily is a legendary beauty, with "incommunicable grace." How do you communicate the uncommunicable? (Where's Julianne Moore when you need her?) Davies, who'd never watched "The X-Files," reportedly hired Anderson after seeing a photograph of her that put him in mind of the paintings by the celebrated Edwardian society portraitist John Singer Sargent. Is that any way to cast a movie? Of course not, but there's something almost spookily right about the scenes between Anderson and Eric Stoltz, who plays Lawrence Selden, Lily's paramour and male equivalent. Like Lily, Lawrence is easy on the eyes, easy on the ears and, for all practical purposes, broke. And the fact that Anderson and Stoltz could pass for sister and brother--all that luscious red hair and alabaster skin--brings an incestuous frisson to their forbidden love (forbidden because neither of them can afford the other). They're meant for each other but mustn't be together, a lesson neither of them ever quite learns, and I only wish that Anderson and Stoltz were capable of conveying that complexity of emotions.
No one in the cast could be said to stand out, unless Dan Aykroyd, who's in way over his head as the craftily monstrous Gus Trenor, could be said to stand out. "The gloves are off, and there's blood on the walls," Davies has said about a society that turns its back on Lily, then gives her a little kick, then a bigger one. But the gloves aren't off in Davies' movie, and there's barely blood in the veins, let alone on the walls. Such a remarkably assured director in his first two, largely autobiographical films (Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes), Davies has trouble telling someone else's story. He shows us Lily's beautiful face but fails to take us inside her head--that gilded cage from which she is unwilling or unable to extricate herself.