The House of Mirth is as Spellbinding and Sorrowful as a Cello.

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The House Of Mirth Directed by Terence Davies

Capturing different moments of Lily's devastation, Davies' artistry goes beyond the still life in exactly the way that cinema supersedes painting and photography; it conveys emotions (or the ineffable) beneath the surface view of Lily's world. In the mansions, plush interiors and formal social gatherings, the characters share screen space with time and fate. Davies and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin style the movie after the chilly chiaroscuro of John Singer Sargent?but not for a museum-standard tone. Their stylistic choices are as startling as that moment when Edward Hopper was recreated in Pennies from Heaven. Though Davies and Adefarasin's compositions are culturally appropriate, their audacity is further justified by the uncanny way Anderson's plainness gets posed into elegance?it is her air of white American feminine beauty that tells an additional story about the appurtenances of class and money.

It's essential to appreciate that The House of Mirth's imagery vibrates with Davies' particular meanings?his sensitivity for the kind of struggle life becomes for Lily?because the film tests the popular taste for period melodrama catered to by Masterpiece Theater and the Merchant-Ivory productions. As a genuine tragedy, it demands an evaluation of personality and social temper more serious than the usual admiration of carriages, drawing rooms and affluent people in white clothes strolling on green lawns. When Lily is displaced by an insufficient inheritance and no marital support, Davies transports us into her psychic universe. The film is layered in literal and metaphorical darkness. Visually elegant, its effect is spellbinding. Sorrowful as a cello.

Lily recalls Gena Rowlands in Davies' The Neon Bible, his first fully realized adult figure after the childlike POVs of his previous films. But there may be closer identification here, as evidenced by the poetic representation of Lily's emotional states?ravishing evocations of her personal daring and grief that show Davies, a visual artist in the lineage of Straub, Tarkovsky, Bresson and Techine, to be both imaginative and brazen. As in his first masterworks, Davies invokes a panoply of romantic ideals: Lily enters the film silhouetted through clouds of train station smoke like Anna Karenina (or Some Like It Hot, Davies joked during a press conference) but she comes toward the camera as a timeless figure of loneliness, her hat (like her cares) precariously balanced. During a flirtation with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), the bachelor Lily loves but keeps at bay ("You see, I came after all"), Davies shifts consciousness to show Lily clasping her parasol in a fanciful moment, rapturously unrestrained. While charting Lily's social descent clearly, steadily, Davies brilliantly underscores it when she misjudges propriety and, wearing a red gown, attends the opera with her stockbroker, the married Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd). They climb the opera house stairs in a mournful lockstep like at the end of Thieves Like Us while in the opera box Lily's red dress phosphoresces in the auditorium, evoking Bette Davis' faux-pas in Jezebel. This retention of cultural memory distinguishes Davies' art as postmodern, yet few other intellectual filmmakers have been as sensual or emotional.

Bertolucci praised Martin Scorsese's Wharton adaptation The Age of Innocence, saying, "It is fascinating to see Scorsese at work in the atelier of Visconti," but even that may have been too distant for the film to work. As The House of Mirth is interpreted, the primary artist here is not Edith Wharton but Davies, who has not so much served Wharton as taken her tale personally. It's salutary to identify how Davies' gay insight gives him the right socially alienated yet emotionally sympathetic understanding of the strictures and hopeless longings in Lily's story. (You sense it first in the poignant angle of Lily's hat; it's jaunty, assertive, yet also a shield.) And the forlorn, impoverished, movie-mad Liverpool kid is apparent here, too. It's in the way darkness is paced (the long day closing), and the way that a disconsolate Lily languishes in a hovel listening to the city's clatter outside?a superb realization of loneliness?making this film more potent, even frightening, than recent polite literary adaptations. Through Davies' visual emphasis, Lily's social tragedy sneaks up indirectly as did Redmond Barry's in Barry Lyndon. Stanley Kubrick's temperament is only better known?not more felicitous?than Davies'.

Cast adrift by her penurious Aunt Peniston (Eleanor Bron) and her supplicating Cousin Grace (Jodhi May), Lily takes a social invitation to Europe that Davies renders in unparalleled cinematic refashioning of Wharton that draws terror and pain out of the original story. A montage searches Peniston's vacated manse with all its shrouded luxuries in disuse, both light and life pale in the empty rooms; then outside where a rainy downpour duets with the opera fragment on the soundtrack; then the ocean roiling, the sun beckoning, the camera flowing to a deceptively bright Monte Carlo. The grand sequence etches Lily's fate against her hope: it's directorial expression of something larger than life while the actors delineate personality.

Anderson's the life form under Davies-Wharton's microscope. Using her familiar stoic reserve, Anderson choreographs the collapse of Lily's defensive temperament. "Where does dignity end and rectitude begin?" Lily asks, and Anderson seems to feel it. The mole above her lip?a facial flaw?seems righter than Wharton's beauteous description. It allows Anderson to make spiritual depression humane, visible, yet still shockable when Carry (Elizabeth McGovern), a jaded friend, makes the observation, "The world is vile."

Davies prepares Lily's eventual tragedy, gives it balance and scale, through Cousin Grace?a minor character as distraught as Lily, who has internalized rules, repression and petty vengeance. Jodhi May, who was the young girl in A World Apart, makes Grace's torment heartbreaking. As Grace ages into an emotional and physical replica of her aunt, the resemblance (with its hint of Great Expectations gone bad) is unnerving. A quintessential Davies character, her face deliquesces from the misery of an assigned social role and her unrealized passions.

Such images strike a moral awareness. Davies makes sure they will claim your memory with a righteousness that could be thought of as feminist?assessing how Lily and Grace hold themselves together with manners absorbed from the society (and hypocrisy) they were born into. Davies repeats more of Wharton's arcane prose than he needs?as in the line, "If obliquity were a vice we'd all be tainted." But a more deft conscience is at work when Lily admits a terrifying word, "Poverty!" and confides to Selden, "I have joined the working classes. I am on the rubbish heap." This daunting admission makes The House of Mirth a straightforward challenge to the contemporary moviegoing fondness for the escapism of period dramas?even those as different but basically insipid as Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

It was bizarre when last year's critical acclaim for Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy almost unanimously ignored the fact that the film was not actually about the glory of the British theatrical tradition. Self-deluding critics simply preferred exercising their usual Anglophilia; for them Topsy-Turvy might as well have been a Merchant-Ivory celebration of the British Empire. (Audiences knew better; they could sense Leigh's scornful undercurrent, his unsettling interest in individual and cultural neuroses. They stayed away in droves.) This attitude may well affect how some people view The House of Mirth's distaste for things Imperial?especially the American imitation. The tendency to genuflect before aristo-dramas makes apolitical fools of many moviegoers. (Fox has even mounted an ad campaign for the ludicrous Quills that appeals to people who are suckers for costume dramas.) But Davies' idiosyncratic grasp of romantic tragedy will be hard to misread as innocuous. Both the politics and emotions in The House of Mirth are stinging, with a delicately hammered intensity. His final great tableau puts the blood back in John Singer Sargent.

"The Past Recaptured: The Cinema of Terence Davies" runs Dec. 29-Jan. 4 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. (B'way), 875-5600.

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