NYFF 2000 REVIEW: Davies' Still Lives; Power-"House of Mirth"
by Ray Pride
(indieWIRE/9.25.00) --While contemporary film festivals often honor the continuing work of proven cinematic pioneers, the much-lauded discoveries are usually the pictures which extend cinema as an emotional and pictorial form, or that accommodate music and tempo as important components of a feature-length heartbeat.
Terence Davies' 1988 "Distant Voices, Still Lives," remains one of the great movies, a vivid autobiographical portrait of a Liverpool working-class family terrorized by a brutal father. What made "Distant Voices" great is Davies' elliptical yet emotional approach, with impressionistic flashes of "story" held together by song-as-ritual. Whether listening to the radio, reacting to the father's outrages, or in the communal singing of songs at pubs and celebrations, the family is held together by the tenuous bond of music. Watching a movie of intense romantic power like Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love," with its comparable slipperiness and its drenching in the voice of Nat King Cole atop Brazilian melodies, we are reminded of the reveries in Davies' work: shadows falling across wallpaper can, on screen, hold as much drama and tension as the carpentry of plot. (All that is exquisite melts into air.)
For some reviewers, Davies' latest, his severe, perseverant adaptation of Edith Wharton's tragic 1905 novel, "The House of Mirth," seems a retreat from the impassioned stylization of his earlier work. When it's released this Christmas by Sony Pictures Classics, most of the talk, however, will be about the fastidious shaping of performances, and particularly Gillian Anderson's brilliant turn as a doomed, headstrong young New York socialite whose broaches of civility are not countenanced at the turn of the century, and missteps in manners lead to her exclusion and disgrace. (Let us also offer thanks that Davies' meticulous wide-screen images will be seen on theater screens instead of debuting on cable, as was once intended.)
Where Davies' scenes in "The Long Day Closes" float past in a dreamy reverie, as a deeply self-conscious, near-mannerist collection of still lives and of voices from movie soundtracks, he holds himself in check with "The House of Mirth." The performances surrounding Anderson are sturdy and unfussy -- I'm even fond of Anthony LaPaglia and Dan Aykroyd's as two of Lily's suitors -- and the decors that swaddle their gossipy, snobbish intrigues are precise. Davies pauses only a time or two to capture light rippling off water, or shadows of lace falling across carpets.
Some of the aesthetic choices may have been forced by the scale of the film and its spare budget, drawn from the UK's Granada TV concern, Scottish funding (most the film was shot with Glasgow doubling for old New York) and Showtime. Yet the restraint is all to the film's gain, preventing the deadly chichi that often kills period costume drama, such as Martin Scorsese's own Wharton folly, "The Age of Innocence."
Gillian Anderson is a revelation. Story goes that Davies never saw "X-Files," but instead saw a photograph of Anderson in a magazine and knew that her face held the light that Lily must burn with and then fade. The heart-stopping moments of eloquent visual beauty in Davies' prior filmography are exchanged for something equally valuable: a work of emotional astringency that builds to a rare emotional crescendo and leaves us suspended with heavy hearts at the emotional folly that brought Lily to this place.
Abiding sorrow is a constant in Davies' films, and his masterful orchestration of the pulse of "The House of Mirth" culminates with a dramatic weight he has never fashioned before. The meditative focus he has brought to bear on images and sequences in past films is instead parceled out over the course of a two-hour, twenty-five minute narrative, and the result is quietly, mournfully shattering.
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to Filmmaker and longtime film editor for Chicago's Newcity. He writes about movies for TNT's Roughcut.com, Time Out New York and the BBC World Service, among others.]