House Of Mirth
Australian Reviews and Articles
Photos: Gillian Anderson ... cool and in control; (Below) Drop dead gorgeous,
with Mulder as Scully, in The House Of Mirth as Lilly Bart.
Dana Scully's alter ego uses glacial tones to keep Phillip McCarthy in his place as she talks about her role in a new Edith Wharton adaptation.
It always seemed that the most dangerous thing to do with Dana Scully, Gillian Anderson's coolly cerebral persona in the The X-Files for six years, was to bore her. Try to outsmart her like a calculating extra terrestrial, send her off on an enigmatic hunch, but don't leave her brain, well, alienated. When she fixed an icy stare on someone being tedious - usually one of her fussy FBI bosses or, occasionally, David Duchovny - you knew there was trouble ahead.
So it isn't the most encouraging beginning to an interview when Anderson, diminutive but charismatic, walks into the room, fixes me with a cool look of appraisal and yawns widely enough for me to inspect some beautifully wrought bridge work.
"I'm sorry," she says before yawning again. "I thought I was doing quite well this morning. Then halfway through lunch I lost consciousness ... You know, it's funny to be coming back to this because it came out so many months ago in America."
The "this" she is talking about in her slightly clipped mid-Atlantic accent is The House of Mirth, British director Terence Davies's adaptation of Edith Wharton's portrait of early 20th-century New York. The book has been described as Wharton's most devastating satire, more withering than her take on the upper echelons of society in The Age of Innocence, which Martin Scorsese adapted for the screen.
On its American release the film got strong reviews and as its gallant but flawed heroine, Lilly Bart, Anderson collected such superlatives as "revelatory", "stunning" and "magnificent" for a performance in which she was rarely off screen. She brought a certain forensic precision - coolly scientific Scully, with her medical degree, would have been impressed - to the task of delineating her character's emotional descent through ambivalent coquetry, tremulous anxiety, numb fatigue and fatal despair. All of which seemed to whisper Oscar.
But it was bumped aside by a more showy period piece. The critics and certainly the Academy latched onto Quills, with its saucy evocation of the life of the Marquis de Sade. Geoffrey Rush's performance as the marquis got the attention and the nominations as Anderson's was largely overlooked. No wonder, too, because while the marquis gets naked, Lilly Bart barely puts down her parasol.
It was a pity because, in a lot of ways, The House of Mirth is a sort of parable for the fickleness of contemporary Hollywood. Like New York of Wharton's time, social worth in Tinseltown is measured by economic leverage and trophy looks. And just as Lilly Bart takes a rocky slide down the social scale, a bad weekend or two at the box office can send an actor, or more especially an actress, slipping from casting grace and box office desirability.
"I wouldn't take that comparison too far," Anderson says when I advance this hopefully yawn-stifling theory. "In those days, for a woman of a certain social standing, having to work was such a lowly place to be and we've moved on from there. Now there is a ridiculous disparity between those with wealth and those without, but it's not as much a matter of life and death for women in particular as it was then. Not that all the issues have been resolved."
Actually, one unresolved issue on the equal pay for equal work front is the gender disparity that famously extends to Hollywood and specifically to The X-Files. One of her grievances with The X-Files - one reason she says she will "most definitely" leave after next year's season - was that she has always been paid less than Duchovny and that disparity between the male and female leads rankled with her.
It might be a reason her relationship with Duchovny, the man she rather pointedly and impersonally refers to as her "co-star", has always seemed a bit frosty. He's only in the show part time now. Not that we're about to get into any of that today. After a little X-Files banter, Anderson says we've spent enough time on the series. Scully might get much of her authority from her FBI pistol, but the woman behind her just does it with her voice.
"I wouldn't say I am sick of it," she says closing off the subject. "It's nice to have been working consistently, and exploring a character for so long is very challenging in and of itself. Scully has also been something of a role model for young women. But I have spoken openly before about the fact that I would like to move on and have the choice to move on. There's only so long you can do the same things over and over. But back to the movie, please."
Strangely enough, for someone clearly anxious about not being taken over by her character, there's an awful lot of Scully in Anderson. She's aloof, cagey, poised and very much in control. At one point during our talk - which was never exactly the last word in chatty bonhomie - Anderson fixes a glacial stare on me and says rather tersely after a line of questioning displeases, or perhaps even worse, bores her: "Is this your way of trying to find an angle for this story?" We had drifted back, perilously, onto the subject of pay disparities between men and women and Anderson was having none of it.
Further along she eyes my tape recorder and says in a coolly impassive monotone: "Do you think this is close enough?" Anderson's speaking voice is clear and distinct with good, south of England inflections. So I say I think it is. She moves it toward her anyway. That British-infused speaking voice - it is more pronounced in real life than it is with Scully - has something to do with spending nine of her formative years, from two to 11, living in London. Her father was a film production manager and took the family off to London so he could study at the London Film School before taking a variety of jobs. Money was scarce and the family lived in a succession of flats in working-class neighbourhoods.
When the family came back to the United States, to the mid-western town of Grand Rapids no less, Anderson was a full-fledged British punk rocker with multicoloured hair, a faux cockney accent and a hostile attitude. At the age of 14 she was dating a 21-year-old Sid Vicious lookalike. It got her voted Most Bizarre Girl of the Year by her classmates. All in all, they were a promising set of assets for a budding actress who would later be abducted by aliens. Most of the punk paraphernalia has gone, but Anderson does, it's said, have a pierced navel and tattoos of Tahitian tortoises on her ankles. But they're not visible under today's black ensemble.
Interestingly, Terence Davies had never seen an episode of The X-Files when he decided he wanted her for Lilly Bart. Apparently, he came across a publicity still of Anderson and thought she had the right look for his film. He's been variously quoted as saying that Anderson looked like a society beauty that John Singer Sargent might have painted or that she had the luminosity of a 1940s star such as Greer Garson.
Another reason Anderson wants to leave The X-Files after next season for movies is to spend more time with her daughter, Piper, 7, who largely grew up on the set of The X-Files and became totally blasť about the aliens wandering around the set. But it's not how Anderson wants to bring up her child. Movie projects such as The House of Mirth give her the chance to be a better actress, she says pointedly, and "hopefully more time to be a good mum, too".
Piper's dad, Clyde Klotz, is a former X-Files assistant art director whom Anderson met during the show's first season and wed in a Buddhist ceremony on the 17th hole of a Hawaiian golf course in 1994. They divorced two years later. Getting pregnant so early in the show's run was not the best career move, particularly when some of the studio suits had apparently wanted, improbably, that other Anderson, Pamela, for the Scully role. And what a yawn that would have been.
The House of Mirth opens in Australian cinemas on June 14.
Article From Sydney Morning Herald, June 9, 2001.
More than just a chickfic flick, The House of Mirth is a superb adaptation of a classic. And hey, it's made for adults, writes Peter Craven
Article From Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum liftout, June 9, 2001.
What's this? A film of Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth, with Gillian Anderson from The X-Files in it? Well, Terence Davies's film is a great piece of work. It contains (surprise, surprise) a towering performance from Anderson and it shows remarkable fidelity to a novel which for all its scintillation ends up being stark to the point of tragedy.
The House of Mirth is not a feel-good comedy in fancy dress, not even of the "serious" Jane Austen kind; it is a tear-jerker with a mind and a heart in this case a broken one, depicted with great intelligence and coolness by Wharton, whom Terence Davies and his crew rise to meet at almost every point.
So how did we get this far? For more than a decade there has been a niche market for the period film that could encompass the breadth and sumptuousness of the 19th-century novel. It began with Merchant Ivory, who worked out that they could put on some kind of masterpiece theatre show if they plumped those great dames, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, down in the vicinity of young things like Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands in E.M. Forster's A Room with a View (an amiable but not very distinguished film).
And sometimes the results were horrid. Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve, despite the perfect casting, couldn't make much of Henry James's The Bostonians, simply because Merchant Ivory couldn't.
But the trend was set. Whether it was Ang Lee doing Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson or Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma, these films of classics had biggish stars and budgets and literate novel-derived scripts, as well as the sort of adult humanism of their visions. And they have been rendered with a feminist inflection which does not distort the originals and is not incompatible with the audience's lust for pretty dresses and bonnets.
The great novels that have enjoyed this celluloid revival have tended to be chickfic. Not for this genre the epic and dramatic achievements of the Victorian novel (in Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky), but rather a version of what F.R. Leavis called the Great Tradition, which he saw stretching from Austen through George Eliot to James.
This is not the rambunctious 19th century of Balzac or Dickens. It doesn't tend to cartoonery or grotesquerie or wild humour but to the social comedy of the marriage dance sometimes depicted scarifyingly as in James's Portrait of a Lady (which Jane Campion, Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich made a fair fist of) and sometimes with great sparkle. But it is fiction that takes drawing room society its sexual tension and the dreams of love and pain that animate it as its metier and milieu even when the effect is cross-textured as in James, or follows the dark shadowiness of society as in Wharton, or is light as air as in Austen.
The 19th-century novels film-makers prefer are like transfigured soaps. They have a strong element of romance, whether fulfilled or thwarted, and are preoccupied with the complications of everyday entanglement. They are, however, masterpieces of construction and adult entertainment in the midst of a contemporary cinema characterised by the opposite impulse. We still live in the age of that great wizard of bubblegum, Spielberg, and it's a truism that a fair fraction of Hollywood cinema is designed so that children can get equal pleasure from it. When someone makes a film of complex verbal threads, or where the characters may not be simply good or bad, it tends to be classified in advance as art house and therefore niche market.
Film-goers should be grateful for the pluralism that creates the niches and allows the retro literary films to thrive. At a time when university literature departments are in retreat from the classics, these films produce great advertisements for great books.
Take the forthcoming Merchant Ivory version of James's The Golden Bowl with Uma Thurman and Nick Nolte. Films like this don't necessarily "work", or translate the books, but the fact that they can be attempted in a climate that allows for fidelity and some approximation to sensitivity of tone cannot be bad for either novel-reading or cinema. They may not produce transcriptive masterworks like Visconti's The Leopard and Death in Venice, but we have had Scorsese's Visconti-style film of Wharton's Age of Innocence and now we have Davies's film of The House of Mirth.
Wharton's 1905 novel is a late example of the lean, inflected realism, full of selective detail and concentration, which Flaubert made famous and James developed with epical circumlocution and subtlety. Wharton is very like him but she is sharper: less poetical and undulating, swifter and more brutally dramatic. She inhabits the world of old plutocratic New York like a hand in a glove but she is less interested in probing the intoxicating bewilderments of society than in showing first its swerve and charm and then that it is a nest of vipers, an arid landscape, an abomination of desolation.
The House of Mirth is a novel that has lost none of its power to shock, not least because of its power to charm. It sets up every expectation of a happy resolution in the reader and then dashes her on the cobblestones of life. It begins in scintillation with flirting and mating games the delicious pulled-back sexiness of things nestling in superior underwear but in the end the action is as lethal as Greek tragedy.
It is the story of Lily Bart, a young beauty and wit from an improvident family, who needs to marry a man of means if she is to retain her place in society. She glides through life with a combination of irony and zest, plotting the entrapment of a rich bore here, tossing it away for a rhapsodic bit of love talk there.
Wharton's vision is so credible and her writing so adept in its tonal shifts because the cynicism of the first movement seems supremely worldly and game (not least because there is the constant whisper and lilt of Lily's feeling for her true love, the intellectual lawyer, Lawrence Selden). Both Lily and Selden are so attractive in their hopeless blind ways that every trick of the novelist's wit encourages our hopefulness.
But The House of Mirth has the elasticity and tightening power of a well-made play, one of such tragicomic richness and variety that it defies the mind's capacity for category. It is, for instance, much lighter in texture and moral preoccupation than James's Portrait of a Lady but the movement towards catastrophe is harsher and more discordant.
Wharton also makes the unfolding of her plot seem as logical as the movement of the sun, but she constantly seems to imply that the poignancy of most human situations comes from the fact that they might have been reversible. Part of the power of her drama is that you never hear the machinery creak, and the corners of the mouth turn down as inevitably as the smile forms, often in rapid and confusing alternation.
Lily, early in the book, reveals a trivial indiscretion to the self-made financier Mr Rosedale. Then she allows Gus Trenor, husband of her best friend, the gabby society hostess Judy Trenor, to make some money for her (in fact he simply gives it to her) and the situation becomes prickly because Trenor desires the favours Lily had no idea she owed.
Part of Lily's predicament is that she naturally attracts rich, powerful, ruthless men and she refuses to act dishonourably, either by effectively prostituting herself or by busting open the hypocrisy of the marriages to her own advantage. She is tempted to, but refuses to be base, even though there is no role for her to fall back on except that of a social butterfly.
She behaves and this is one of Wharton's sombre sophistications like a beautiful thing in a novel, buoyantly, blindly, full of impulsive good feeling and improvised moral purpose, but then the book seems to turn round and say: I'm sorry we're not in that kind of story at all. It is as if the world of Emma Woodhouse somehow collided with the world of Emma Bovary, as if the world of mistakes of judgment in the midst of the humane comic carnival lead inevitably to the poison bottle and the long hard haul towards death.
Along the way Wharton shows herself to be a writer of absolutely cold-eyed wisdom. This is one of the most blistering accounts of a social world ever written and it is within an inch of being the world we know American, constructed and dangerously glamour-prone. It's a world as coded as that of medieval Japan. Wharton's brilliance is that she takes the assumptions of her Edwardian world and presents them like a theology: the importance of wealth, the significance of virginity, the inviolability of honour, the emotional apartheid of men and women united by a common predatoriness, the impossibility of open communication, the iron hand of appearances.
These things are made so fresh that the reader becomes intimate with them without ever giving assent to what happens to Lily. It is simply that a sophisticated world has its way with her. Along that way there are revelations that stagger like a blow. Rosedale, who has been seen as a crass Jewish arriviste, remains less than attractive but shows a real humanity and concern.
George Dorset, the husband of the woman who hurls Lily to the wolves of hypocrisy, speaks to her with real passion and prescience. A saintly young girl burns with competitive passion for all her kindness. A working woman, with almost nothing, bows to the spectre of Lily's affliction.
It would be wrong to give away too much of the plot of this novel, which charms like a sphinx but also, sphinx-like, tells dark truths. It will keep any lover of Austen going there's the same sparkle but then the lights go out.
Davies's film does both aspects of Wharton proud. This is a film that will stand as a testament to the fact that a powerful vision is transferable from one medium to another. It will bear comparison with the great David Lean adaptations of Dickens as showing how an idiom and a style can be captured pretty exactly and turned into film. It doesn't matter that it is not as "good" as the book what would be? It is a powerful translation, stylish and devastating, moving from comedy to tragedy with the tread of a cat and in this context that's quite "great" enough.
Davies goes at Wharton's dialogue and atmospherics with great tact and attention to detail. He frames his characters like Sargent portraits, captures the line of a group like Charles Conder, but is always attentive to the sinuousness of Wharton's dialogue, its disclosures and ripples of warmth and coolness. One way of explaining this is to say that we can't tell when he's lifting the dialogue directly from the mouths of the characters in the novel and when he's taking Wharton's narrative and using a character's third person point of view to turn their implied voice into actual dialogue.
It all sounds exactly like Wharton, with all her codes bristling and all her subversions implied. It's a masterful script. Most of the characters are intact with all their grossness and frailty on show but with a perfectly composed sense of gloss providing the idiom through which feelings are pinpointed, never obscured.
Davies wrests superb ensemble acting from an Anglo-American cast that look like instantiations of the figures in the book. Dan Aykroyd has a bluff, pig-headed reasonableness as Gus Trenor that spans the gap from informality to brutality very neatly. Laura Linney as Bertha Dorset has just the right look of gimlet-eyed decorum, absolutely poised and absolutely treacherous with no hint of self-discomfiture. Elizabeth McGovern manages to be both daffy and warm as Carry Fisher and in the small, crucial role of George Dorset, Terry Kinney has a moment of genuine raw magnificence.
This is one of those occasions when a classic is rendered not perfectly but superbly. There are all the sorts of touches of grandeur and an impeccable grasp of detail that never tries to be too grand. Eleanor Bron, for instance, is wonderful as Mrs Peniston.
You could argue about some of the men. Eric Stoltz may be a little too much of a cold fish as Selden, but he is utterly credible and on the note. Rosedale is a lost "type", but Anthony LaPaglia gives him a rough warmth and a kind of squat unattractiveness that in combination make up the kind of complex portrait, both sly and kind, that the contemporary cinema rarely yields.
And there is something remarkable about getting dialogue as spiked and stylish as Wharton's delivered not for its heritage value, but as the complex tracking of a world as full-blooded and shark-infested as any that could be encountered. This is not masterpiece theatre acting but it is a fine rendition of a masterpiece by a close to flawless cast.
And, yes, in the midst of it there is Gillian Anderson. She is not my image of the character, she looks a bit older than the character should, which makes it all the more remarkable that she triumphs as she does. This is acting to die for. She captures with absolute precision the sculpted one-liners and the weight of feeling behind them. When the action does become sombre she rises to the dramatic potential of the role, with all its dark lines and poignancy, with no hint of milking and with a power of restraint that makes the audience shiver palpably.
This is a magnificent performance in which the actor becomes first the gilded butterfly then the creature striving to fly and then the embodiment of the end of the struggle. It has no hint of affectlessness, no hint of overaccentuated artifice. Anderson inhabits the role with a nearly absolute power of authenticity and the film would be worth seeing for her alone. Indeed, it is worth seeing even if bonnets do not give you a frisson.
Peter Craven is editor of The Australian Quarterly Essay (Black Inc).
The House of Mirth opens on Thursday.
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