[box cover]

The House of Mirth

In all likelihood, writer/director Terence Davies' biggest challenge in adapting Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth for the screen was to find the right actress to play Lily Bart, the woman at the center of the novel's incisive, insightful look at New York's upper class in the early years of the 20th century. One of literature's most tragic heroines, Lily is undone by a poor head for business, a soft heart, and a conscience that kicks in just a little too late. Inexorably, the beautiful Lily becomes a victim of the society that trained her, turning from a sought-after socialite into a hopeless, destitute shell of her former self. Davies must have been thrilled, then, when he cast Gillian Anderson in the role. Beloved as The X-Files' Agent Dana Scully, Anderson gives an astounding performance, trading in Scully's skepticism for Lily's all-too-fragile confidence. A creation of the complex, unforgiving high society of the early 1900s, Lily goes head-to-head with the drawing-room crowd, a group of people more deceitful and insidious than any found in the conspiracy theory-laden storylines of Files. Dependent on a rich, self-righteous aunt for her livelihood, the self-assured Lily is determined to marry for money, but her heart keeps getting in the way, drawing her to poor-but-handsome lawyer Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). She risks her reputation one time too many, making it easy for spiteful matron Bertha Dorsey (Laura Linney) to put the final nail in her social coffin. And as if all that weren't enough, Lily finds her source of funds in jeopardy when she naïvely trusts a friend's husband to invest for her and then can't bring herself to agree to the kind of repayment he demands. Eventually, all she is left with is her determination to pay back her debts and wipe her conscience clean, but that's not enough to sustain her in the end. Watching The House of Mirth on DVD makes Anderson's performance all the more impressive: The gradual, subtle skill of her transformation from bright overconfidence to abject misery and defeat is all the more apparent when you can watch the film's first scenes again right after the credits roll. She is aided by Davies' excellent script, which showcases Wharton's dagger-sharp dialogue at its best, and a strong supporting cast, especially Stoltz and Linney. The editing is occasionally choppy, a problem Davies explains in his commentary for a special 12-minute sequence that features longer versions of some of the film's opening scenes. He was pressured to take out "nips and tucks" for time reasons, he says — a decision he regrets, since he feels some of the film's subtleties were lost in the process (perhaps a director's cut is in the future?). Davies also recorded an informative, enthusiastic commentary track that, after the deleted footage, is the main feature on Columbia's DVD edition of the movie. Other extras include filmographies for the principal cast members, trailers for House of Mirth and other period films in Columbia's catalog, scene selection, and printed production notes. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is rich and lush — every costume and set detail is clear — and the digitally mastered DD 5.1 sound is crisp. Other language options include a Dolby 2.0 Surround track and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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