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The House of Mirth
The New York Times
Sept. 5, 1999
by Sarah Lyall

DUNS, Scotland _ The British director Terence Davies had never watched even a single episode of ``The X-Files'' when he plucked Gillian Anderson's picture from a pile last summer and decided that she would be perfect for his next film, an adaption of Edith Wharton's ``House of Mirth.'' She had the sort of fin de siecle face he had been searching for, a face that might have been painted by the great society portraitist John Singer Sargent.

As it happened, Ms. Anderson had been given a handsome volume of Wharton's tragic 1905 novel as a gift not too long before _ a coincidence worthy of Dana Scully herself. And she was a huge admirer of Davies, a painstaking and stylish filmmaker who is hardly a household name in Hollywood but whose work - three short autobiographical films and three full-length features - has drawn critical acclaim and captured an abundance of film festival awards.

She also liked the fact that Davies did not even know her in her most obvious incarnation, as one of television's highest-paid and best-known stars.

``Whenever anybody would ask me what my favorite films were, `The Long Day Closes' would always come to my mind,'' said Ms. Anderson, referring to Davies' 1992 autobiographical account of growing up in working-class Liverpool.

During a break in filming here on a cold and rainy summer afternoon, dressed in a voluminous purple gown, Ms. Anderson explained how she had hunted down a tape of ``The Long Day Closes,'' bought it and recommended it to anyone who would listen. ``You know how when you see a film, it just rocks your world?''

Along with Ms. Anderson, who plays Lily Bart, the beautiful heroine taken up and then rejected by upper-crust society in turn-of-the-century New York, the cast of ``The House of Mirth'' includes Eric Stoltz as Lawrence Selden, the charming suitor whose fatal flaw is that he is not rich enough; Laura Linney as Bertha Dorset, a married friend who builds Lily up and then knocks her down, and Dan Aykroyd as a date rapist before his time a married man who tries to force himself on Lily. Davies hopes the film, which does not have a theatrical distributor in America yet, will be accepted at the Cannes International Film Festival next spring.

After investigating a number of possible locations, including Philadelphia and Baltimore, the filmmakers decided on Scotland. Glasgow, with its grand tobacco and shipbuilding mansions, became 1905 New York. And Manderston House, a stately home in this community near the English border, became an estate in upstate New York, the scene of the country house party that marks the beginning of Lily's end.

The book is very much of its time, but the story is a timeless account of the ruthlessness and hypocrisy of a society fat with wealth and misplaced morality.

``It's a society where the lines are very strictly drawn,'' said Laura Linney, who played Jim Carrey's wife in ``The Truman Show,'' and whose character's petulance and spite in ``The House of Mirth'' help touch off Lily's eventual downfall. ``The drama happens when you veer out of line. If you're caught, the result is immediate expulsion.''

For her part, Ms. Anderson _ who is back to work on the ``X-Files'' this month said she was drawn to the complexities in the role she plays, a character whose entire upbringing has trained her to marry well, but whose inherent morality makes it impossible for her to sell out.

``So much of her behavior is propelled by innocence and naivete,'' she said. ``She finds herself in these terrible situations, and the audience has to sitby and watch her do it.''

Davies said he had long wanted to film ``The House of Mirth,'' having come to love Wharton's tart, brilliantly observed novels when he switched on his rad io one evening years ago and heard the actress Faith Brown reading from the author's letters. Of all her novels, he said, this one has the most resonant, and the most tragic, story.

``A genuine tragedy for me is when the character cannot do anything other than what they do, and it destroys them,'' Davies says. ``Lily makes a conscious effort to do all the right things, but does the wrong things at the right time and the right things at the wrong time.''

The film represents a departure for Davies, who specializes in highly stylized, elliptical films that have mostly dealt with memory and the mysteries of the past.

``The problem with cinema is that it is in the eternal present, and I wanted to experiment with the nature of time and memory in film,'' he said. ``But I found that I'd come to an artistic cul-de-sac, to the end of that particular artistic experiment.''

He's had to adjust to a new challenge: filming what is essentially a straightforward, linear narrative. And in paring down and reshaping the novel into a screenplay, he has had to be finely tuned to the nuances of Wharton's sharp, elegant prose _ writing that captures to devastating effect the cruelty beneath the surface of the society she describes.

``It's not just a question of adapting the story,'' he said. ``You have to adapt the tone as well. When you read Edith Wharton, it's unmistakably Edith Wharton, and you have to capture her tone, her voice. It gave me enormous pleasure to write dialogue in a way that I think she would have. One of the things about these people is that they speak and are very articulate, but they never say what they feel. When they share love and emotion, they're like inept teen-agers.''

Most of the actors took pay cuts of various magnitudes in order to appear in the film, whose budget of roughly $8 million is modest by Hollywood standards. But, said Stoltz, they weren't in it for the money.

``When the material is embarrassing and terrible that's when you get the big paycheck,'' said Stoltz, eating a vegetable-heavy lunch after completing a scene where his character abandons a tete-a-tete with Bertha in order, very subtly, to follow Lily on a walk outside. ``It's such a relief to come across a story like this, with a literate script that doesn't condescend or pander to 13-year-olds. Not that I'm opposed to those films, God knows. But it's like getting a meal from a master chef after eating at McDonald's for many years.''

In immersing themselves in Wharton's rarefied, rigidly structured society, the filmmakers and actors were struck by its parallels to the world of today.

``You could take this story and put it in a small town, a high school, a college, in contemporary New York or London and it would still apply,'' said Aykroyd, admitting to some discomfort at having to grope Ms. Anderson in his pivotal scene. ``What still applies is the stratification of society and the ability of people to savage someone who's vulnerable.''

One mini-society where the same lessons apply, it seems, is Hollywood itself.

``Actors are not only part and parcel of this world, but we're the worst offenders when it comes to cutting people off,'' Stoltz said. ``I've been in and out so many times I'm dizzy.''

When the filmmakers were searching for an actor to play Lawrence, said Olivia Stewart, the producer, they were made more aware than ever of how ruthless the film industry is, with a strict but always changing pecking order that assigns every actor an instantly recognizable position.

``There's a strict gradation of importance,'' Ms. Stewart said, speaking in the production's makeshift office in an old stable at Manderston House. ``It's all about who's in, who's out. We would hear things like, `You're not having dinner with so and so, are you? He's lunch!' And that's exactly what the script is about: pretense, manners, keeping an eye on the main chance, or on what's perceived as the main chance.''

Davies said: ``It's a very modern, savage satire. We live in an age of surfaces. They did then, and we do today. What's true today is that how you look and how much money you have is what matters. Being a good person doesn't matter, and it still applies now as it did in 1905.''

Transcript appears courtesy of the New York Times News Service.

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