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At the Movies: ‘The House of Mirth’

December 19, 2000 GMT

No one is laughing and there is little joy in ``The House of Mirth,″ Terence Davies’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel about the limited choices a young society woman faces in the early 1900s.

Gillian Anderson is the beautiful but confused Lily Bart, a woman of marriageable age whose finances are rapidly shrinking. Should she marry for money? For love? Not marry at all? Society’s expectations are as relentless as the tide, and Lily is foundering.

A life of ease is appealing, but she can’t quite stoop to the moral compromises that would entail: chasing after wealthy yet unattractive bachelors.

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``My genius would appear to be my ability to do the wrong thing at the right time,″ she confides to her friend Lawrence (Eric Stoltz) after irritating yet another boring millionaire.

Making matters worse, Lily has a curious inability to understand motivation or to recognize friend from foe. In a society where the rustle of taffeta and silk masks the gladiator-like combat of social climbers, this is a deadly affliction.

Society matron Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney) hides her venality behind a brilliant smile, and she lures Lily into a trap as surely as a spider spins a web for its prey. Juggling a posse of lovers but managing to keep her reputation intact, Bertha concocts a perfect bait-and-switch _ tossing the suspicion of romantic impropriety onto Lily.

Lily also rakes up debts from playing bridge, leaving her vulnerable to the attentions of a married man.

The one-two punch floors the honorable Lily; shunned as a trollop, disowned by her aunt, her standard of living plunges as many who had envied her beauty gloat.

Well, all this makes one long for a bit of comedy, no?

No. ``The House of Mirth″ is a grim tale well told. Its central tenets _ beware of false friends, be true to yourself and others, understand that choices have consequences _ ring as true today as they did 100 years ago.

Anderson is an appealing heroine, heaving bosoms and all, blundering socially despite being blessed with the face and body of an angel. Lily longs to escape a very rigid class structure _ only to find, when she does, how very cosseted she once was.

Linney is nothing short of delicious as a wicked schemer who relishes stabbing a ``friend″ in the back and watching her bleed in public.

It may be hard for an audience to understand why Lily doesn’t deliver a knockout punch to the odious Bertha. But this is a period piece, and if you take away those agonizing moral conflicts, there isn’t much left of the story.

As Lily’s best friend, Stoltz is a bit of an enigma, but adds a needed dash of sex appeal. Dan Aykroyd and Terry Kinney demonstrate how the phrase ``stuffed shirt″ originated, playing buffoon husbands ruled by their dominating wives.

Filmed mostly in Glasgow, Scotland, the turn-of-the-century sets by production designer Don Taylor _ dark-walled rooms, heavy curtains _ reflect the movie’s somber mood. Costume designer Monica Howe had the much more fun task: creating lavishly detailed gowns for Anderson to glide around in.

Gilded cages, indeed.

A Sony Pictures Classics release, ``The House of Mirth″ runs 124 minutes and is rated PG for adult situations. There is no nudity, swearing or violence, but Wharton’s formal language would be difficult for children to understand.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.