Writer-director Terrence Davies’ two most accomplished films, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) were both about working-class families making do in the postwar England of the ’50s. Elliptical, episodic, and with more sense of scene than story, each film was suffused with an introspective nostalgia and a sumptuous sadness, the first being a muted tragedy, the second a muted celebration.
Such poetic restraint would seem to make him a good candidate to adapt Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth which takes place in New York in the early 1900s, in a social strata where verbal reticence is a sign of good breeding, even though it leads to misunderstandings and missed opportunities. But Davies’ stately gloom, which gave his two earlier (and semiautobiographical) films a rich tonal density, seems excessively downbeat when layered over Wharton’s already bleak story.
The film follows the downward trajectory of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), a young woman who knows she is at, if not past, the proper point where society requires her to make a good marriage, but whose independence of mind balks at the idea of settling down. Besides, the man she really loves, Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz), is not wealthy enough to make the loss of freedom worthwhile, while her most active pursuer, Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), has a lack of dash which promises years of marital dreariness. Then there’s the wealthy Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd), who would have Lily as his mistress, a prospect which she finds appalling.
It’s an interesting and mildly eccentric cast, rounded out by Eleanor Bron, Laura Linney, Jodhi May and Elizabeth McGovern, and the acting is variable. Anderson (of “X-Files” fame) is very good in the difficult role of someone who is willful enough to resist conforming, but not imaginative enough to see beyond her struggle. Thankfully, Davies doesn’t make her a modern woman stuck in a period piece (a tendency of some Austen adaptations), but rather someone limited enough to be compliant in her own downfall.
Some of the other cast members are less impressive, especially Stoltz whose lack of presence seems to suck the air out of every scene he’s in — one begins grow to weary when he and Anderson embark on yet another long, meandering conversation. LaPaglia fares better bringing a certain charm to what could have been a Semitic stereotype, while Aykroyd, convincing as a bulky mandarin, hasn’t entirely escaped his past — when he smirks with smug glee, he still looks like Beldar Conehead.
Davies’ implacable gloominess can be seen as either a worthy act of seriousness or the odd testament of an artist on the edge of clinical depression. But however you view it, his commitment to the material seems to grow as Lily’s downward spiral intensifies, right up to the final devastating scene, with a Borodin string quartet caressingly sweet and sad on the sound track.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].