Lily Bart is a strong-minded heiress whose will to independence can only be seen as pride by the society she lives in--New York City at the turn of the 20th century. She recklessly accumulates gambling debts, treats with lighthearted scorn the powerful men who covet her, and falls victim, in the end, to petty rumors. Disinherited, she joins the working classes, and gradually descends into drug addiction.
It's the stuff of pulp melodrama, raised by Wharton's delicately histrionic treatment to the level of tragedy-of-manners. But Davies resists the histrionics, and makes the story into a chamber play, in which squelched emotion and strangled expression perform a hushed duet. The director seems to have set himself the near-impossible task of making a movie about repression where the drama turns on the fact that what's repressed never rises to the surface.
The Masterpiece Theatre-style costume dramas the film superficially resembles tend to work in the opposite way. They, too, are all about repression, typically with the self-congratulatory implication that we moderns have risen above the stifling social rituals of days of yore. But these films can usually represent repression only by revealing the strong emotions repression mitigates--as in the explosions of violence in Howards End, or the sex scenes in Wings of the Dove. Only then do you realize what undercurrents are supposed to be surging beneath the surface. But Davies wants to reveal these undercurrents without ever manifesting them directly, because, his film suggests, social repression doesn't just short-circuit true expression temporarily before it finally emerges--it kills the feelings it suppresses.
There is a sex scene in The House of Mirth, and it's a marvel in its subdued carnality, its suggestion of a desire that can barely take shape amid the opulent trappings designed to crush it. The scene evokes a compelling sense of suspended time, and hopeless longing that gains force because it's hopeless. The pace is slowed, in long, languorous shots, and sound effects are invested with a charge of rare sensuality: the whispering folds of elaborate clothing, the lapping of moist lips in halting speech, the keening echo of a concerto so faint, so far distant, that it might be heard in memory alone. The scene is not meant to suggest that if only these people could break out and get in touch with their real, primal selves--à la the Merchant-Ivory A Room With a View--then they'd triumph over the restriction of social mores. The point here is that's just what they can't do.
Still, some viewers might understandably, at first, mistake The House of Mirth for another entry in the Merchant-Ivory running. It's a period piece, after all, with fancy costumes, classical music filling the soundtrack, and painterly compositions--the last image fades into a melancholy tableau that suggests Mary Cassatt. I don't mean to slight Merchant Ivory here unnecessarily: With films like Shakespeare Wallah and Roseland, they were international pioneers of independent filmmaking. Before they settled into the cozy niche of their recent films, they even brought some of that independent spirit to their earliest forays into costume drama--as in the dryly severe The Europeans (1979), to which The House of Mirth bears some affinities.
But the rigorous spareness of Davies' film has none of the genteel aura or the classy status of the later Merchant-Ivory productions. In The House of Mirth, scene follows scene with an impacted cadence made harsher, somehow, by the precise dissolves that link the images, and the tableaus have an enclosed, airless quality--you can sense the dank, rarefied atmosphere, but you can't breathe in it.
The whole film is delicately stylized, and Gillian Anderson's performance as Lily Bart suits this milieu perfectly. By no means is it standard, naturalistic "star" acting. It is both mannered and understated, a thoroughly modulated performance, the gestures refined, the line-readings just slightly, though fastidiously, stilted. This stylization is meant to suggest a range of emotional colorings, while retaining an essential elegance. Even after Lily has resigned herself to her debasement, she remains excruciatingly well-bred--as if she thought she were in a Merchant-Ivory film. Considering the extreme bias of many film viewers toward naturalistic acting, Anderson's performance will not be to every taste--especially since it's at odds with the more traditional styles of many of her fellow actors, like Eric Stoltz, playing Selden, Lily's true love. But this works for the film, too, in the end, suggesting Lily's terrible distinction, her intractable apartness.
If you're a lover of Wharton who wants to view a full adaptation of her work, see Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. Scorsese's film encompasses the waspish wit, the detailed examination of social minutiae, and the exuberance giving way to melancholy that are the hallmarks of Wharton's great novels. With sheer intensity of focus, Davies concentrates here only on the dourness, in all its varied textures. The emotional register of the film is closer to Strindberg than to Wharton. It's a very modern rendering of Wharton's fairly modern novel, on the order of Jane Campion's treatment of James in The Portrait of a Lady. Davies skews some of the causes in Wharton's plot: The nature and origins of the rumors swirling about Lily are obscured, and her sojourns as secretary and milliner appear startlingly in the film's plot, left relatively unexplained. Davies wants to show this society as a complex closed system, where the causes of effects are never easy to determine, even when they seem to be nothing but petty personal motives.
Davies is known, when he's known at all, for densely free-associative memory-films like Distant Voices/Still Lives (1987) and The Long Day Closes (1993). These films transport the materials of British social realism, chronicles of working class family life, into a heady context of modernist aestheticism, with fragmented narratives and highly wrought alienation-effects. But though the films look avant-garde to many viewers, it's hard to stay too alienated from them--the feeling for the characters is so deep. Watching these movies is like seeing the ghosts of loved ones, substantial yet fleeting, and understanding at last the suffering that made them what they were.
For Davies, we're all products of our time, and one thing this means is that we're trapped in time. In his earlier films, we watch as the characters, helpless and beloved, strive variously for transcendence--pursuing the errant cycles by which they live, or joining together in fugitive song. In The House of Mirth, you still feel you're watching a cast made up of phantoms, and the feeling expressed for them remains intense. But because the world of the film is so tragically loveless, this feeling can take shape, not as love, but only as an abiding sympathy with those who must live, and die, there. And this time there is no transcendence--except, perhaps, for the one that might come later, after the film is done, when you know you have witnessed a work of art.