Published January 1, 2001
“She was too good for this life. . .” wrote Philip Larkin of the graffiti-covered bathing beauty on the advertising poster for “Sunny Prestatyn” and his ironic pity came to mind as I watched Gillian Anderson piling up the pathos as Lily Bart in Terence Davies’s screen adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth. Miss Anderson shows that she has real talent, but it is expended in an unworthy cause. She is like some Thomas Hardy heroine who has been preternaturally unlucky in her choice of friends and lovers, so that by the time we leave her we are as relieved as the other friends who cannot help her to say good-bye to someone so obviously and inexplicably cursed.
In Mr Davies’s retelling, Lily’s misfortunes are the result neither of plain bad luck nor of a Hardyean-style divine malevolence. Instead they spring directly from the iniquity of the social system that unfortunately prevailed in this country a hundred years ago, dominated as it doubtless was by the heartless upper classes and supported by a veritable host of religious nuts, racists, sexual hypocrites and miscellaneous oppressors of women. Lily’s rich Aunt Penniman (Eleanor Bron) is here a mere caricature, pretending to be shocked by Lily’s “gambling” and immediately asking: “Do you play on Sunday too?” This is the portrait of a mad prig, a fanatic, who ruins Lily out of mere capriciousness. Likewise, Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney), Grace Stepney (Jodhi May) and Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd) are scarcely to be acknowledged human beings, so black and gratuitous is their malignity to poor Lily.
I must say that I didn’t remember Lily as being quite so much the victim of this society, quite so much the secular saint and martyr as she is depicted as being in the movie. Somehow I had it lodged in my mind that the novel had not been a political hagiography but a domestic tragedy, in which, like all tragic heroes, Lily is at least partly the author of her own downfall and (almost) as much sinning as sinned against. I don’t say positively that I was mistaken, or that I was not. It may be a defensible reading of the text to turn it into this kind of political melodrama, reminiscent of nothing so much as the “socialist realist” propaganda of an era slightly later than that in which it was written. If so, it is not the novel I thought it was.
In any case, Davies is, as you might almost expect in a movie made in the aughts of this century about the aughts of the last, much less interested in a shrewd and trenchant adumbration of the nature of “society” than in the lives of the feminist saints. Actually, Lily the feminist saint is rather shrewdly done, as she is perfectly calculated to appeal to what I take to be the peculiarly feminine style of self-pity. Doubtless the much more liberally-minded society matrons of our own era will enjoy shedding a tear or two over Lily’s melancholy fate and vicariously sharing in her posthumous satisfaction at how sorry both her weak friends and her hateful enemies will be when they know the full extent of her sufferings. And they will love as much the idea of being hard done by for having to marry a man and of being equally hard done by if a treacherous girlfriend prevents her from marrying the same man.
Thus the movie ends with a tableau vivant (or, I suppose, a tableau mourant) of Laurence Seldon (Eric Stoltz) kneeling and weeping by Lily’s deathbed, finally confessing that he loves her. He could do little for her, and now it is too late. This pose is very much in the style of the film and at the same time one of its many period details. Lily herself appears in a tableau vivant as “Summer” by Watteau at a society gathering earlier in the movie, and the static, artificial style suggests the kabuki-like, stylized drama in which this Lily is caught up. Both she and her society are too perfect. Every detail of dress and furnishings and manners has been perfectly recreated for cinematic representation. At one point as she walks through the streets of New York, we are allowed to hear a political orator on his soapbox inveighing against the Russian czar—just to remind us that it is 1905. This is history come to life.
But that is just the problem with it. What we miss is the messiness of real life, just as we miss the humanity both of Lily, who is too good, and of those who ruin her, who are too bad. Something, to be sure, survives of the novel, and Mr Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) has actually been cleaned up a bit. The mild anti-Semitism suggested by his portrayal by Edith Wharton was (probably rightly) judged by Davies to be a distraction from his larger purposes. But even if that had been allowed to survive, we might have had more of a sense of New York society a century ago as it really was and not as it could be dressed up and posed to be, a Platonic image of what the last century is supposed to have extinguished. Without manners, without formalities, without a clearly understood moral code to guide our public lives, we are meant to be grateful that we are not as these people were. If, like mine, your gratitude is tempered by regret for what we have lost, this movie will have little to offer you.