Director Terrence Davies took a chance casting "The X-Files'" Gillian Anderson as the devastated heroine in his adaptation of "The House of Mirth," Edith Wharton's corset opera of turn-of-the-Century social politics.
But in her first 20 seconds on screen -- speaking in deliciously eloquent dialogue and looking stunning in plumed hats with veils, fur collared dresses, brooches and a parasol -- she erases any and all memory of Agent Scully, the TV alter-ego you probably thought would haunt the actress for the rest of her career.
A drawing room drama about the whispered politics and wily business of marriage in New York high society, the film is about a beautiful young socialite whose life becomes hampered with scandal, in part because she can't reconcile her heart with the fact that she must marry well to maintain her station.
Lily Bart (Anderson) is in love with a handsome lawyer, Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). But he's something of a playboy, and he works for a living -- so she feels forced to seek a husband at a higher echelon of the aristocracy. In this period women are, after all, forced to depend on men for their reputations and their livelihoods. Plus, Lily needs a husband who can settle several large debts she has accumulated (many from gambling at cards).
But her more gentlemanly suitors are not happy prospects for Lily. She's an intelligent woman and a free-thinker, something most of them find threatening -- and she's scarcely attracted to the ones who do not. Lily finds herself in limbo and quite ill at ease with her tenuous position.
When she's with Selden, she can hardly contain herself as they toy with each other in an elaborate flirting game that sucks the audience in with its corseted chemistry. At times Anderson seems so affected it feels like she could genuinely swoon. Although Lily is too proud for such a display, she's not too proud to run after Selden when another man is waiting for her, leaving her suitor humiliated.It's such behavior that leaves Lily open to the hissed backbiting that soon bring her to ruin when she's accused of having an adulterous affair by an underhanded friend (the hitherto underappreciated Laura Linney, getting Oscar buzz for "You Can Count On Me"), who has herself had an affair with Lily's true love, Mr. Selden.
Writer-director Terrence Davies layers "House of Mirth" with a sophisticated complexity in both plot and character that would be hard to quantify without explaining the picture almost scene by scene. He deftly navigates this world's subtle shades of acceptability and impropriety. He gives the film an ethereal beauty beyond its elegant photography and absolutely exquisite costumes. He enfolds the audience in Lily's veiled anxiety.
And he puts his trust in Anderson, who rises to the occasion beautifully, lending her character a veritable synthesis of human strengths and frailties. Her Lily is at once poised and unsure. She is both astute and naive, often discovering the hard way who are really her friends and who are not -- like the banker (Dan Aykroyd in a surprisingly crafty period performance) whose offer to invest money for Lily turns out to be a ploy to blackmail her into bed with mounting debts. Anderson also makes it subtly but abundantly clear that Lily loathes to abase herself with all this husband hunting in the first place.
But what's most striking is her breathless, yet frequently restrained, passion. In her scenes with Stoltz, Anderson looks as if she may burst from yearning and frustration over the platonic state of their complicated relationship.
Stoltz is strong as well, playing Selden's true feelings for his dear friend close to the chest while he grins flirtatiously -- in part as a defense mechanism against his own heart and in part to remind himself of the pleasure he gets from his other affairs.
Davies made other casting leaps of faith besides Anderson and Aykroyd, most of which paid off. Anthony LaPaglia plays one of Lily's more insistent suitors whom she refuses even though he waves off her scandals and her debt. Elizabeth McGovern plays the one friend who sticks by Lily in spite of the allegations of adultery.
The film's weakest acting links are Elenor Bron as Lily's judgmental, disapproving aunt and Jodhi May as her mousy cousin, both of whom over-play their characters to the point of becoming grating and cartoonish long before they serve their purpose in the film -- to disown Lily, forcing her into poverty for a tragic spin in the last act.
Davies takes other missteps that prevent "House of Mirth" from soaring -- like the sometimes accelerated storytelling. Example: In three to four minutes of screen time, Lily invites Selden to tea, he doesn't show, another suitor does and proposes marriage, she turns him down, the telephone rings, she's invited on a Mediterranean cruise and she leaves. Somebody hit the breaks!
But if you brace yourself against the narrative whiplash, "The House of Mirth" is a transporting piece of "Masterpiece Theater" cinema.