Once upon a time — before it died in development hell — Edith Whaton’s novel, The House of Mirth, was slated to be directed by Milos Forman from a screenplay by Ken Russell. That might have been something. What we now have instead is writer-director Terence Davies’ airless approach to the material. That’s also something, but the something it is isn’t terribly exciting, moving or convincing. Davies’ film is admittedly gorgeous to look at and is ultimately mildly involving (mostly by its sheer heaviness), but at 140 very long minutes it’s pretty tough sledding. The final impression is something between Masterpiece Theatre and Merchant-Ivory on heavy sedatives. The latter may be vaguely apt, considering the hideously telegraphed (“Tell her she must not increase the dose”) tragedy of the film involving a bottle of chloral. From a viewing standpoint, it spells cinematic Sominex. The film is an examination of hypocrisy in New York City society during the 1905-07 period and the observations — while on the mark — are hardly revelatory. And the setting may be early 20th century, but the tone and writing are pure Victorian. This last, of course, is a problem that stems from the source material, which Davies seems to have slavishly followed in a screenplay boasting some of the most arch and unbelievable dialogue imaginable. It’s impossible to conceive of human beings from any era saying most of the lines in the film, which come across like a series of Oscar Wilde epigrams minus the humor. The problem with such an approach is that you’re left with the feeling of watching characters who know they are quaint museum pieces — and in 1905, they would hardly have thought that of themselves. All of this still might work if the central character of Lily Bart (The X Files’ Gillian Anderson) were genuinely sympathetic and not such a stupefying combination of willfulness and credulity. It’s just not that easy to feel sorry for a character who constantly puts herself in the worst possible light and then is quite shocked by the repercussions. And even this might work if there seemed any purpose to her actions, but there doesn’t — beyond self-indulgence. A heroine who accepts $9,000 from a man to cover her gambling debts and is then startled to find he might harbor romantic designs on her transcends any known level of ingenuousness. Making matters even worse is the fact that Gillian Anderson stalks through most of the film looking as if she has just encountered a singularly unfortunate aroma. It is perhaps either her, or Terence Davies’ notion of just what a society lady of that era should look like, but it doesn’t work, and it’s so one-note that by the time Lily descends into chloral addiction, she doesn’t seem all that changed. In all fairness, it isn’t entirely Anderson’s fault. She does have one genuinely powerful scene, and almost none of the high-powered cast are able to get past the script. Even the wonderful Eleanor Bron as Lily’s stiff-backed aunt never comes to life. Only Elizabeth McGovern as Lily’s slightly Bohemian friend, Carrie, manages to seem truly human. The unfortunate thing is that The House of Mirth tries so hard to be a worthy film that it’s hard not to want to like it, but the movie itself just won’t cooperate. It constantly keeps the viewer at arm’s length and feels too much like it’s quite certain that it’s good for you and is somehow improving you by its very existence. That kind of dry superiority just never makes for good entertainment, no matter how earnest or how sumptuous it is to look at.
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