Make no mistake, the title may say “mirth” but this period drama, set in early 20th century New York, is anything but mirthful, being based on the novel by Edith Wharton, an author who cast an acerbic eye on Society’s manners and hypocrisies.
A luminous Gillian Anderson plays Society beauty Lily Bart. Dependent on her rich aunt, Lily has one job and one job only, that of finding a rich husband who can keep her in the style to which she is accustomed. And she has to do it quickly. Lily is no longer a fresh face on New York’s social scene. Not only has she gained a reputation as a husband-hunter, but she has a secret vice: gambling (and losing) at bridge.
The movie opens gorgeously with a shadowy train and a woman’s elegant figure emerging from the smoke. It is Lily and she’s just missed the train (purposely or not) that would take her to a house party at the estate of her friends, the Trenors. By chance she encounters her friend Lawrence Selden (Eric Stolz) who daringly invites her to tea at his apartment. Lily decides to risk her reputation. Unfortunately she’s caught leaving Selden’s place by Sim Rosedale (Anthony Lapaglia), a nouveau riche businessman. This is her first misstep on a long and ultimately tragic road.
Catching the next train, Lily calculatingly pursues a wealthy but awkward stuffed shirt of a bachelor who’s also a house party guest. He is charmed but when Selden appears at the Trenors, she falters in her plan. There’s long been a romantic attraction between Selden and Lily. She’d marry him if he had money, he’d ask if she wasn’t so mercenary. So they dance around their feelings with words and stolen kisses. Ultimately, she loses her chance with the stuffed shirt, who eventually marries another.
While Lily’s aunt pays her dress bills and provides a home, she doesn’t give her niece much in the way of cold hard cash. Innocently, Lily asks for advice from Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd, an unexpected choice for a period drama). Trenor delivers good dividends on her small investment. But he expects payment in turn, and not in the monetary sense. Shocked, Lily rebuffs him. But now she’s deeper in debt than before because the “dividends” came out of Trenor’s pocket.
Rosedale offers marriage. It’s an easy solution to Lily’s problems yet she dawdles on her answer. Rosedale isn’t “Society”. And he’s not Lawrence Selden.
Lily has also made an enemy in the spiteful Bertha Dorset (a deliciously poisonous Laura Linney). Selden was once one of the married Bertha’s lovers. Bertha spreads gossip about Lily and in a final vicious act, compromises her already shaky reputation. When her aunt dies, leaving the bulk of her estate to a cousin, Lily descends into poverty and despair. But there is a way out of debt and a way to destroy Bertha Dorset, if Lily chooses.
“The House of Mirth” is low-budget and lovingly shot in Scotland, mostly Glasgow. It moves slowly but for fans of this kind of costume melodrama, it won’t be boring. Like similar films (“The Age of Innocence”, “Portrait of a Lady”), it’s not about the surface of society; it’s what’s simmering underneath the polite manners and social conventions: passion, jealousy, infidelity, anger, despair. Perception matters, not whether a person is guilty or not of breaking Society’s rules. And women are judged the harshest of all.