dir. Terence Davies
Opens Fri Jan 19 at Seven Gables.
BRITISH DIRECTOR Terence Davies' The House of Mirth, an adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel about New York high society, is the tragic story of a beautiful young woman looking to marry a rich husband and finding herself torn between her need for financial security and her desire for personal integrity. Davies' film brings his trademark style (mannered performances, stately tracking shots, symmetrical compositions, and exquisite cinematography) to Wharton's novel, and the result is, on the one hand, singular and moving, on the other, stiff and narratively confusing.
Terence Davies first burst on the international film scene in 1988 with Distant Voices, Still Lives, an autobiographical film about growing up in late 1940s Liverpool in what we in America would call a "dysfunctional family." The family in question is terrorized by an abusive, alcoholic father, but nevertheless manages to find some measure of solace and human connection in the ragtag community formed nightly at the local pub. The film, a critical success, used long, slow tracking shots, highly stylized acting, gorgeous cinematography, and a narrative structure that constantly shifts back and forth in time to convey the look of the period, and more importantly, the emotional feel of the period. The film was arguably Davies' best. It was certainly his most distinctive, although many found the film confusing and so slow-paced as to verge on boring.
Davies' next film, The Long Day Closes, was also an autobiographical film about Davies' childhood, shot in a similarly mannered style. But whereas Distant Voices, Still Lives had at least the central conflict between the abusive father and his long-suffering wife and children to sustain audience interest, The Long Day Closes lacked even the rudiments of any narrative drive. The result was self-indulgent and tedious, as well as a critical and commercial failure. Davies took the lesson to heart and abandoned his autobiographical and temporally nonlinear style of filmmaking. According to Davies, "I wanted to show I could do a linear narrative."
Davies' first attempt at a linear narrative was his adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's The Neon Bible, a coming-of-age memoir set in the South during the depression. Unfortunately, the film suffered from most of the flaws of Davies' previous efforts: the lack of any strong or compelling narrative, stylization to the point of near-suffocation, and an aesthete's sensibility more interested in elegant camera moves than in acting or storyline. Gena Rowlands, the lead in the film, was sadly wasted in a role and acting style unsuited to her talents. And the film, despite its origins as a beautifully written memoir, showed little narrative mastery and failed to further Davies' faltering reputation.
With The House of Mirth, on the other hand, Davies is telling (or rather, retelling) a story with narrative drive. The result is Davies' best film since Distant Voices, Still Lives, although anyone who has read the novel will be invariably disappointed by its inferiority to the original text. Ironically, the film's greatest flaw--its extreme stylization--is probably also its greatest asset. This stylization manifests at every level: in the set design, in the camera movements, and in the overly mannered acting style that Davies demands of his actors. Although Davies' trademark affectations often verge on becoming ponderous and off-putting, they also occasionally elevate the film to a level of abstraction that verges on the sublime. If one is able to get over the initial discomfort with this lack of naturalism, one may by the end find oneself authentically moved by the film's tragic denouement.
This said, the performances in the film are at times embarrassingly bad, with the actors not so much acting as reciting their lines. This is partly the result of Davies' almost complete lack of interest in realism, but it is also due to several unfortunate casting choices. Gillian Anderson, who plays the film's heroine, does an admirable job of trying to breathe a little bit of life into the stylistic constraints that Davies subjects her to, but the same can't be said for many of her fellow actors, who end up floundering on the reefs of Davies' directorial demands. Even as excellent an actor as Eric Stoltz, who here plays Anderson's love interest, fails to hit a convincing note, coming off as arch and smarmy instead of charming and high-minded. But the biggest casting blunder is the choice of Dan Aykroyd to play the film's villain. Whatever Aykroyd's other talents might be, his performance in this film is uniformly stolid and his presence in the film does much to undermine its plausibility. In short, while The House of Mirth has certain undeniable charms, its concomitant flaws make it a film impossible to wholeheartedly recommend.