A minor character in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth observes, “There’s nothing grimmer than the tragedy that wears a comic mask.” This dictum captures the complex tone of Wharton’s superb 1905 novel, in which the writer satirized the self-indulgence and cruelty of New York’s upper classes while charting the gradual, irreversible descent of Lily Bart, a striking young woman who lacks the means to survive in a milieu where money alone confers status.

Wharton took her deceptively lighthearted title from a cautionary Biblical verse: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Lily, the orphaned child of wealthy parents broken by financial ruin, is taken in by her dour aunt, Mrs. Peniston. Lacking an inheritance and unprepared—as well as disinclined by her privileged upbringing and love of luxury—to support herself, Lily relies on her beauty to keep afloat in the rarefied world of Manhattan’s social elite, in hope of making an advantageous marriage.

Something inherently rebellious in Lily’s nature prevents her from selling herself to the highest bidder—an acquaintance speculates that “at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for”—yet she rejects a proposal from bachelor lawyer Lawrence Selden, a man who loves and understands her, because he lacks the wealth that she desires. Nearing 30 and increasingly in debt, Lily dodges the advances of Gus Trenor, a lascivious married socialite to whom she is financially obligated, and Sim Rosedale, a rich Jewish arriviste who views her as his entree to Manhattan’s upper crust. Denied a legacy promised by her aunt and unjustly tainted with scandal by a female rival, she’s reduced to working in a millinery shop, producing the stylish hats that she once sported. As Lily’s health and options wane, her moral scrupulousness waxes, impelling her to sacrifice herself to save Seldon’s reputation.

Wharton juxtaposed Lily’s tragedy with mocking portrayals of the inhabitants of the world that attracts and ultimately destroys her. Herself a product of New York society, the novelist cast an insider’s cold eye on its materialism, empty rituals, vanity, hypocrisy, and cruelty. Although published nearly a century ago, The House of Mirth offers social commentary that remains surprisingly relevant to our own era. Add cowboy boots to the snobbery and conspicuous consumption exhibited by Wharton’s characters and you’d have a withering critique of this week’s inaugural parties and balls.

Unsurprisingly, British writer-director Terence Davies’ screen adaptation of Wharton’s novel stresses pathos over social satire. Davies built his reputation on two painstaking, episodic re-creations of his Liverpool childhood. 1988’s Distant Voices, Still Lives evokes the hardscrabble existence of the director’s working-class family, tyrannized by a sadistic, psychotic father and finding solace only in the mindless optimism of popular songs. Its sequel, 1992’s The Long Day Closes, is less harrowing, a chronicle of Davies’ life following his father’s death. The crushing poverty remains, but movies—particularly Hollywood musicals—alleviate the gloom and foreshadow the filmmaker’s future career. In both features, Davies’ style is as important as his subject; his painterly images and precise camera movements are both impressive and oppressive. Reaping their considerable beauties requires patience, as Davies probes the molasses of his memory in search of epiphanies.

The task of adapting Wharton’s novel requires Davies to present a linear dramatic narrative rather than a mosaic of impressionistic autobiographical fragments. He accomplishes this by conflating—and, in some cases, omitting—many of the book’s secondary characters and incidents. But the essence of his uncompromising technique remains intact: measured pacing, formalized camera movements, protracted exploration of faces, and concentration on expressive details. Davies’ austere style lacks the sparkle of Wharton’s prose, in which virtually every paragraph offers up penetrating insights and treasurable turns of phrase. But viewers who can adjust their inner clocks to accommodate the filmmaker’s deliberate tempo will be rewarded by moments of shattering intensity.

The success of any dramatization of The House of Mirth weighs heavily on the actress who plays Lily Bart, and, initially, Gillian Anderson doesn’t seem quite up to the task. Although undeniably attractive, she lacks the spellbinding beauty that grants Lily access to a world that would otherwise shun her, and Anderson’s rather flat line readings are ill-suited to the novel’s literate, faithfully transposed dialogue. But the actress’s unsparing commitment to the role transcends her less-than-ideal casting. She connects with and internalizes Lily’s plight and, in her wrenching climactic scene with Selden, puts to rest one’s initial reservations about her suitability.

Apart from Eric Stoltz’s competent but somewhat callow Selden, the supporting cast is uniformly impressive. The standouts include the versatile, invaluable Laura Linney, barely concealing malevolence beneath a vinegary smile as Lily’s nemesis, Bertha Dorset; Dan Aykroyd, whose sweaty plumpness embodies the horny, manipulative Trenor; Anthony LaPaglia as the blunt, social-climbing Rosedale (whose Semitic origins have been expunged by the P.C. police); and Elizabeth McGovern, who provides a welcome touch of compassion as Carry Fisher, a socialite who attempts to cushion Lily’s fall.

Shot in Scotland and produced on a modest budget for a period film ($8.2 million), The House of Mirth avoids the literalism that weakened Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous 1993 adaptation of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Scorsese became obsessed with the minutiae of historical reconstruction—to the detriment of his characters and themes. By judiciously concentrating on costume design and location shooting in Glasgow’s preserved Victorian public buildings and mansions, Davies suggests Wharton’s deluxe milieu without fetishizing its appurtenances. Like the author, he’s undistracted by ostentatious displays in his quest to explore moral values.

As with Davies’ earlier work, I have to confess that I admire The House of Mirth more than I enjoyed it. Something in me resists the director’s somber, tardigrade sensibility. I found his film to be less affecting and enthralling than Max Ophüls’ 1953 Madame de…, which also depicts the downward spiral of a frivolous woman who rebels against—and is vanquished by—a glitteringly materialistic, hypocritical society. Ophüls’ swirling visual style offers a tonic counterpoint to his heroine’s painful decline, intoxicating us with images of the heartless luxury that ultimately suffocates her. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Davies with Ophüls, whose stature in cinema parallels Flaubert’s achievements in prose fiction. The House of Mirth may be something less than a masterpiece, but it makes even the most highly praised movies currently on display seem like trifling time-killers. CP

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