No, this isn't an unseen episode of The X-Files in which Scully gets abducted by aliens and whisked back to turn-of-the-century New York. Instead, it's Gillian Anderson's best chance yet to break away from TV typecasting.
The role of Lily Bart is a gift for any actress, and Anderson makes the most of what's on offer. A star of Manhattan's social whirl, Lily is caught between her own modern temperament and the old- fashioned rules of the society that holds her in such high regard. As portrayed in both Edith Wharton's original novel and writer/director Terence Davies' screenplay, this is an era when women were obliged to be dependent on men, but could be compromised by scandal if they gave in to that dependency in any way other than marriage. Underneath the film's dresses and dinner parties lies vicious, cold-hearted ambition, as social climbers use and abuse their so-called friends for personal profit and prestige.
Lily, at first, is as manipulative as her rivals, but it's to Anderson's credit that a contemporary audience comes to sympathise with her. In Wharton's book, a sense of tragedy grows from the wrongs done to her, whereas Anderson makes us admire the character for her personal qualities and desire to be a self-sufficient woman. Lily's fatal flaw is the time and place she's born into; the film suggests she's shackled to, not lusting after, the social hierarchy of the day.
Unlike his earlier portraits of pained childhood (The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives), Davies keeps things moving with plot and performance pushed to the fore. As a costume drama, however, The House Of Mirth is handicapped by its low budget: there are so few exterior shots that there's no sense of the story playing out in a real city. Luckily, the cast are up to the challenge, and their handling of the wordplay adds to the period flavour.
A talented cast, with Gillian Anderson never faltering as the lead, gives flesh-and-blood reality to the characters' moral and social dilemmas. There's plenty of quality dialogue to please the ear even if a lack of period splendour short-changes the eye.