The House of Mirth (2001)

An exemplary literary adaptation by Terence Davies that relates the decline of a society beauty in late 19th century New York.

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“The spectator is involved emotionally in the events portrayed on screen, and the film’s intelligent restraint can only heighten the savagery of its tragic climax.”
Wendy Everett, Terence Davies, 2004

The period literary adaptation has long been a cinematic staple, but the form is can be prone to superficiality, leaning more heavily on slavish (or not so slavish) period detail and heightened but po-faced pastiche than the nuanced characterisation and performance on which drama depends.

Terence Davies had already demonstrated a heartbreaking facility for clear-eyed looking-back in autobiographical tales of his own childhood. Here, adapting Edith Wharton’s novel, he does full justice to the material demands of period adaptations while also crafting a screenplay and coaxing performances that express the social and emotional costs of the heroine’s milieu.

Gillian Anderson stars as a New York society beauty who finds the forces of gossip and wealth overpower blithe grace and good intentions.

The 1990s saw the release of two other Edith Wharton adaptations: Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) and John Madden’s Ethan Frome (1993).

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