Positioning a lavish adaptation of a literary classic for maximum awards consideration is hardly a risk, but Terence Davies’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s tale of merciless high society has one huge gamble at its center: playing heroine Lily Bart, an eligible young New York socialite in the early 1900s whose dramatic fall from grace provides the film’s tragic plotline, is none other than Gillian Anderson, best known as the ultracontemporary Agent Dana Scully on the ultracontemporary TV series and feature film “The X-Files.” In the first scene, the gamble seems to be a complete loss, with Anderson appearing to lay on the haughty act a little to thick. As Lily engages in playfully flirtatious conversation with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), her shamefully un-wealthy true love, Anderson seems to feel as awkward as the audience does in these initial stages; the sight of Anderson all buttoned-up and carrying a parasol is one that needs some adjusting to.
But as Davies slowly but very effectively unfurls the story, Anderson seems more and more right for the role, until at one point she is simply perfect. This is not, however, a case of the actress gradually settling into her role than the audience making the break from preconceived perceptions. What appeared to be unfortunately over-the-top in that first scene reveals to be a deliberate and quite smart acting choice; the people in this world live or die by their perception in society, and Lily is simply maintaining her armor as being oh-so-desirable and oh-so-unattainable by the unmoneyed likes of Selden–even if she would like nothing more than to fall into his arms.
Despite her chilly, savvy, confident veneer, Lily is quite warm, naive, and vulnerable at heart, and it is the presence of a conscience that makes her ruin that much more devastating. While the unwritten rules of society and its practitioners undoubtedly contribute to its creation, the trap in which Lily eventually finds herself is just as much her own doing, and Anderson’s three-dimensional portrayal (particularly her expressive face) reflects a deep reservoir of self-aware regret; the poignance of her work is as remarkable as it is surprising. Less shocking is the superb work of Laura Linney, who caps off a banner year with a hiss-worthy turn as Lily’s dangerous “friend.” Dan Aykroyd, Anthony LaPaglia, Jodhi May, Elizabeth McGovern, and Terry Kinney round out the eclectic cast, and they all deliver. Like most costume dramas, “The House of Mirth” progresses at a slow pace, but it’s difficult to imagine the effect being quite as strong if it were tightened; ultimately, each passing minute equates to another cruel twist of the knife, and the audience cannot help but be riveted.