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The House Of Mirth

"A girl must, a man if he chooses," laments turn-of-the-century New York socialite Gillian Anderson in The House Of Mirth, neatly encapsulating the tragic dilemma of being independent-minded in a world governed by stifling social mores. Writer-director Terence Davies' sumptuously detailed and quietly devastating adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel courts inevitable comparisons to Martin Scorsese's masterful version of Wharton's The Age Of Innocence. But in some ways, the two directors couldn't be more different: Davies, best known for his hermetic and rigidly controlled autobiographical "montage" films The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives, opens up to delicately muted emotions, but he could never hope to match Scorsese's intense, unrequited passions. Still, both are equally skilled at evoking those upper-crust corridors of power, the ornate drawing rooms and dinner parties which are always abuzz with coded language and polite viciousness. Unskilled in the "vocation of marriage" practiced by other single women, Anderson has a reputation for being on the hunt, but she scares off potential suitors with her brash demeanor and unladylike habits, particularly her weakness for gambling. Living off the tenuous allowance of her forbidding aunt, she needs a wealthy husband to secure her elite status, but she's undone by an illicit affair with lawyer Eric Stoltz, conniving vipers like her "friend" Laura Linney, and men (Dan Aykroyd, Anthony LaPaglia) who propose devil's bargains. Further burdened by an uncanny knack for poor timing, she begins a steep, inexorable drop down the social ladder, skipping rungs on her way to the bottom. Thawed just slightly from the cool monotone she perfected on The X-Files, Anderson creates a multi-layered character whose impulses make her at least partially culpable in her own demise, but who also holds herself to a nobler set of moral standards. Without the aid of a voiceover like Joanne Woodward's in The Age Of Innocence, Davies does an astonishing job of translating Anderson's subtle violations of draconian rules so they make sense to a contemporary audience. Following Wharton's lead, Davies presents a point of view that's relentlessly downcast and bleak but far from staid, with sharp digressions into a brutal comedy of manners. Meticulously detailed and beautifully performed, The House Of Mirth may be branded conventional by Davies' standards, but it's an assured and welcome change of pace.


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