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Scotland on Sunday
June 13, 1999


When Terence Davies saw Glasgow he realised it was the perfect location for his film of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Gillian Anderson as heroine completed the picture. Allan Hunter reports on a director's dream project.

Director Terence Davies is like a child on Christmas Eve who can barely contain his anticipation. Fifteen years ago, he read Edith Wharton's novel 'The House of Mirth' and dreamt that some day he might transform it into a film that was both visually sumptuous and emotionally devastating. Last Monday, the fantasy finally became reality when "The House of Mirth" began shooting on location in Glasgow.

First published in 1905, Wharton's novel takes its title from the Book of Ecclesiastes which declares that: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." The novel's heroine Lily Bart is a young woman of immense charm and beauty who has reached her late 20's without securing a husband to ensure her prosperity and social standing. Still regarded as a highly decorative asset, she realizes that time is not on her side. She is also handicapped by an intelligence that flinches from the shallowness of the very world in which she is seeking to build her future. Constantly striving to do the right thing at the wrong time, she allows true love to pass her by, becoming a tragic victim of her own better instincts and a society merciless in its ability to crush the weak and disown the unorthodox.

Davies describes the novel as "one of the great modern tragedies" and speaks with typical passion about his admiration for Wharton and her influential text - a bestseller which earned her $23,700 in 1906 alone.

"I apologise for speaking in italics all the time," he says disarmingly. "I just love the book so much. I discovered Edith Wharton by listening to Faith Brook read her letters to Henry James on Radio Three. I had never heard her. I went out and bought 'The Age of Innocence' and someone said you should read 'The House of Mirth.' I did and just fell in love with it. For a long time it was still in copyright but it eventually came into the public domain about three years ago. I asked Channel Four would they commission the script and they said yes."

One of Britain's most respected filmmakers, Davies, 54, gushes with an infectious enthusiasm that leaves you hungry to see his film before the first few frames have even been committed to celluloid. Wharton was apparently encouraged to write by a physician who said it would provide an outlet for the emotional upheavals in her marriage. Davies gives a similar sense of someone compelled to make films as a means of expressing creativity and exorcising demons. His celebrated autobiographical trilogy and works like 'Distant Voices, Still Lives' and 'The Long Day Closes' are eloquent testimony to the bittersweet memories of his childhood, troubled family life and struggle to accept his homosexuality.

It is five years since he last stepped behind a camera, to direct an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's novel 'The Neon Bible.' He admits that he would like to be more prolific, more willing to compromise but it is not in his nature. In an industry of assembly line factory workers, he remains a cottage industry craftsman for whom quality will always take precedence over quality.

"I'm not a jobbing director or a director for hire," he confesses. "I wish I was because it would be much easier to have a career and earn more money but I can't just make any film or some commercial. I was an accountant for 14 years and I kept the most meticulous books. It's a Catholic guilt thing - if I'm doing something, then it must be done properly."

Blessed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of film, Davies is able to cite chapter and verse on the cinematic reference points that he hopes will inform his vision of The House of Mirth.

"'Letter From An Unknown Woman' is a huge influence," he admits. "I saw that when I was 16 and was absolutely knocked out by it. The sheer gorgeousness of the black and white and the wonderful performances. What's extraordinary is the way it simply recreates the Vienna of 1900 on the backlot. 'The Heiress' is another. Again I saw that when I was 16 or 17. Oh, and Orson Welles' 'The Magnificent Ambersons' because it would be lovely if the lab could make it look like that but in colour."

Another strong influence on the look of the film will be the work of the painter John Singer Sargent, whose portraits capture the elegance and refinement of the period.

"I want it to look like Singer Sargent come to life - all those porcelain skins and ravishing fabrics. I want it to look rich and opulent without being suffocating. I want us to make a really good film about that period which was rich - it's the Belle Epoque - it's gorgeous to look at, but, underneath, it is savage; these people are savages and this is jungle warfare. They do it with the greatest kind of aplomb and sophistication and manners but they are vicious. I want to film it in such a way that there is darkness as it progresses, subliminally so that people don't even realize the chill that comes in. It's not the huge things which happen to Lily, it's always the small things which cumulatively destroy her."

The film will be photographed by Remi Adefarasin, a recent Oscar nominee for his work on 'Elizabeth.' Although the film will be judged as the product of Davies' distinctive sensibility, he is keen to stress the collaborative nature of the project, citing the importance of Adefarasin, the cast and crew including those who have spent their time painting the steps of Glasgow buildings so the exteriors look like turn-of-the-century New York brownstone apartments.

The 5.2 million pounds production is scheduled to film in Scotland for eight weeks before moving to the south of France for one final week. Glasgow City Chambers, Mellerstain, and parts of Duns will all see service as the drawing rooms, city hotels and lavish country retreats of the cream of New York society.

Executive producer Bob Last admits that the production did consider other options: "New York itself was too impractical. We did look at Baltimore and Philadelphia but when you think about it there are logical connections between Glasgow and New York of that period. Both were, in effect, merchant cities heavily reliant on their position as a port and with their share of rich businessmen. It made sense to look at Glasgow as a possibility."

Davies sheepishly confesses that he wasn't initially taken with the idea. "The triumph of getting the finance for this movie goes entirely to Olivia Stewart and Bob Last. She has been an absolute tigress about getting it off the ground. It was her idea that we came to Glasgow and at first I wasn't convinced."

"I came up and I saw these ravishing interiors and what the crew have done to dress things like Ann Penniston's house. I saw it yesterday and when you walk in you think people have lived in this house, like this, for 40 years."

Davies is equally bowled over by a cast that includes Eric Stoltz, Dan Aykroyd, Laura Linney, Anthony LaPaglia, Elizabeth McGovern, Jodhi May and Gillian Anderson as his Lily Bart.

Davies is not someone who spends much time in front of the television and so was relatively unaware of Anderson's global fame as Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files. He merely saw her photo and wanted to meet her.

"I was looking for someone who had that kind of period look," he recalls. "I saw her extraordinary face and that kind of luminosity that one associates with, say, Greer Garson in the Forties."

Anderson was a fan of Davies' work and had even purchased her own copy of his 1992 film 'The Long Day Closes.' Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond had given her a copy of 'The House of Mirth' as a parting gift when they completed 'Playing By Heart' last year. When the call came asking if she would meet with Davies about The House of Mirth, she realized that some kind of fate was at work that she couldn't possibly ignore.

Davies has written the screen adaptation of the novel himself but says it really came to life during the read-throughs with actors like Anderson and Stoltz.

"It is a kind of epic but on a smaller scale. What's wonderful about the book is that the formality of the language is so wonderful but the meaning constantly shifts. In the first scene between Selden and Lily it changes moods seven times and you've got to capture that. When we looked at the scripts together they got those changes, they understood the text and the subtexts. It's only when you understand what is going on below the text that it becomes interesting.

"The three things that are taboo to these people are sex, money and real feelings and the only time they really actually look at each other is when they are saying something unpleasant. As soon as they reveal their feelings or partially reveal them they don't look at one another or they don't say what they mean and I love that."

Davies's boyish enthusiasm surfaces once more when he confides: "About a fifth of the dialogue is mine and the thrill has been writing dialogue for the characters where Wharton doesn't have dialogue and thinking I wonder what she would have written. Then the actors would read through and say, 'I like that line' and I'd think: 'That's one of mine.'"

Still bubbling with excitement, Davies leaves the City Chambers for a luncheon appointment. He is a man with a mission. A heavyweight contender with a real shot at the title. "No director could ask for more," he claims. The rest of us can hardly wait to see what Santa brings.

Transcript provided by Mari and appears courtesy of Scotland on Sunday.

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