Distant voices and stilted lives in a mitigated disaster

The House of Mirth (PG) | Terence Davies, 140 mins
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The Big Picture

The Big Picture

A funny word, mirth. Funny peculiar rather than funny ha-ha. It's almost impossible to compose a sentence with it and not have it sound as though it's being used sarcastically. Even odder is that, of all its variants, it's the negative adjective "mirthless" which sits most easily on either the tongue or the page. As in " The House of Mirth is an outstandingly mirthless film."

Yet "mirthless", accurate as far as it goes, isn't actually the word. The Terence Davies version of Edith Wharton's novel is - there's no kind way to put this - a disaster, unmitigated in the first half (of a film whose running time is two hours 20 minutes), mitigated in the second half by the sheer seduction of narrative, of any narrative. By which I mean, if you're still in your seat by the film's halfway stage (not a foregone conclusion), you'll inevitably have got caught up in its plot, at least to the point of wondering what's going to happen next.

If you are still around, it's probably thanks less to Davies than to Wharton's storytelling gifts. Born into the stratified upper crust of early 20th-century New York, Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) is the classic poor relation, expected by relatives and friends alike to settle docilely for the sort of marriage that's not much more than institutionalised prostitution, the eventual husband acquiring a gleaming trophy of a wife while she in exchange gains permanent access to the funds she needs if she wishes to continue indulging her hereditary tastes. Nor is it that no one wants her. But the lawyer Selden (Eric Stoltz), with whom she has been dallying, isn't wealthy enough, the financier Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) personifies new money ( quelle horreur!) and the businessman Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd) is already married. Proud, spirited and very much her own mistress, stumbling from one social miscalculation to another, Lily cannot help but let her natural hauteur and independence propel her to the brink of destitution.

It's a good (if, with the current rash of classy literary adaptations, already slightly familiar) tale, which Davies then proceeds to kill stone dead. The film's first half is a gorgeously tedious fancy-dress ball of parasols, cravats, stiff collars, lacy frocks and extravagantly high hats cocked just so; of " Chÿre dame..." and "Dear Mr Selden, what luck..." and "Men have minds like moral flypaper..." (Ooh, I wish I'd said that.) Davies, his own screenwriter, is sometimes a stickler for grammar ("Americana are so dull!") and sometimes nods ("You must come and see Mrs Peniston and I"). As for his actors, all their energy appears to have been invested in getting their mouths round the high-falutin dialogue - I was reminded of the childhood ordeal of elocution class - leaving no room to flesh out character or communicate the sense of real human beings lurking in the filigree.

Anderson's beautiful face has as much animation as a lava lamp, while Stoltz could give Al Gore, whom he resembles, lessons in stiltedness, and Aykroyd requires only a pair of flamboyant moustachios to twirl and he'd be the complete Victorian villain. It may not be entirely their fault, though. Davies is so infatuated with his turn-of-the-century fripperies, seemingly more concerned to get those right than to generate emotion, it's almost as though the characters somehow know they're living in the past, like the heroes of the spoof French song "We, the knights of the Middle Ages". The spirit of French and Saunders hovers over many of these scenes.

As the plot gets going, the film does pick up a bit, but only narratively, not rhythmically. The problem isn't the leisurely tempo in itself - personally, I like slow movies - but that nearly every scene is of a tête-à-tête conversation between two characters and Davies has seen no reason to diversify his mise-en-scÿne. Again and again, he has recourse to the old ping-pong routine of shot (of someone speaking) followed by reaction shot (of someone else listening), shot (Anderson holds up a cigarette) followed by reaction shot (Stoltz extends a lighted match). It's like playing chess against oneself, darting from one side of the chessboard to the other, to and fro, fro and to, all for a game dispiritingly bereft of genuine conflict and suspense.

And this problem has been compounded by another directly related to it. As a budgetary measure, the film was shot not in New York but in, of all unlikely locations, Glasgow (the Metropolitan Opera house, for example, is in reality the Kelvingrove Art Gallery). One can sympathise with Davies, obliged to reinvent a century-old American metropolis in a contemporary Scottish one, but it has led not just to the monotonously tight visual approach described above (his camera couldn't afford to stray far from his characters' faces for fear of exposing too much of an alien background) but to the dislocation of the narrative from its natural setting. In consequence, one never has the least impression of a specific "American-ness", surely a serious snag in any adaptation of a novelist as finickily observant as Wharton.

I must add, in fairness, that other critics have responded very differently to The House of Mirth (as witness, on its poster, such unequivocal encomia as "exquisite", "a masterpiece" and "a great British film") and that I've been wrong before.