House of Mirth [2000]

Meticulously adapted from Edith Wharton's 1905 novel, The House of Mirth may seem at first to be as dry (and as flat) as pressed flowers, but it's quickly evident that director Terence Davies and X-Files star Gillian Anderson (in a breakthrough film role) have tapped directly into the venality of Wharton's New York society. As the ill-fated socialite Lily Bart, Anderson perfectly conveys the understated wit and craftiness of a woman who knows how to play the game, and yet learns too late that it's loaded with ruthless, unspoken rules. Rising above the traditional crop of "marriageable girls," Lily is desired by any number of men who could ensure her place among the moneyed elite, but she deflects their courtship; lawyer Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) is her true love but, tragically, his modest financial status leads them both into a cycle of unfulfilled romance. Instead, Lily makes too many assumptions about her station, offending her aunt (Eleanor Bron), falling into a financial obligation to a manipulative investor (a curiously apt role for Dan Aykroyd), ostracized by a "friend" (Laura Linney), and refusing help from her most prominent would-be suitor (Anthony LaPaglia). All of these gaffes combine to forge Lily's downfall, and Anderson brilliantly captures the horror and confusion of a woman who is shocked when her expectations are no longer matched by her reality. Lily grows defenseless and dependent, and The House of Mirth evolves from stately reserve to become a devastating portrait of class cruelty. Heavy stuff, to be sure, but expertly crafted and blessed by Anderson's complex and heartbreaking performance. --Jeff Shannon

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