A quiet stillness imbues every carefully assembled frame of "The House of Mirth," British filmmaker Terence Davies' gripping adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel. That cool, hushed calm, as characters float in and out of a story centered on tragic heroine Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson of "The X-Files"), might be misinterpreted by some impatient viewers as a sign of impending drudgery.
Davies indeed does take his time. But these still waters run deep: Just beneath the glassy surface are treacherous currents, waiting to devour innocents foolish enough to proceed without caution. It's an entrancing, entirely satisfying piece of work.
Lily, portrayed by Anderson in an Oscar-worthy performance, is first seen emerging from the mist at a train station. She soon makes eye contact with an old friend, attorney Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). Their coy conversation, full of meaningful pauses and interrupted by genteel drags from ever-present cigarettes, continues over tea at his apartment.
On her way back to the station, she runs into Mr. Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), "nouveau riche" and thereby somewhat of an outsider. He pointedly notes her presence in a building occupied solely by bachelors. Lily's dalliance with Selden was platonic, as are her other friendships with men. In retrospect, though, it's easy to see in her actions a naive recklessness.
It's nearly impossible for us to imagine a society with rules of behavior as strict as those enforced among the aristocracy of turn-of-the-century New York. Davies nevertheless renders Wharton's strange old world in terms that are entirely believable.
"The House of Mirth," unlike Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" or any of the Merchant-Ivory productions, doesn't leave one awestruck by the lavish table settings or the artfully lit interiors. Davies, although conveying the characters' concern for appearances, emphasizes the personalities and their fateful maneuverings.
There's much for Lily to contend with. Selden is clearly in love with her, but he's willing only to admit her value as a source of entertainment. "You're such a wonderful spectacle," he says. Also among her allies or adversaries are her strict aunt (Eleanor Bron); a pretentious financier (a slimy Dan Akryoyd); a feuding couple portrayed by the pitch-perfect Laura Linney and Terry Kinney.
Lily's gradual fall makes for rich drama, perhaps all the more intriguing because of her inability to catch herself. Davies' storytelling makes for a remarkable achievement.