“I feel like an outsider,” Terence Davies told Film Comment in 2001. As a child, Davies was often an observer, more comfortable at the cinema than participating in life. His feelings of social alienation were magnified by his eventual loss of faith in Catholicism, and his sense of difference as he acknowledged his homosexuality. Even as an adult, Davies has continued to experience isolation, in conflict with the modern world and even repelled by it. He has made nine highly respected, idiosyncratic films over a 40-year career, but continues to be on the margins of the British film industry.
Davies’ protagonists are also outsiders. The line between the writer-director and his characters is transparent in his earlier, semi-autobiographical films, especially the three shorts that eventually comprised The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984) and The Long Day Closes (1992). In later films, Davies has turned away from himself as a subject. But his interest in characters on the margins of society remains strong, especially in women who challenge the conventions of their day. Strong-willed women like these are the focus of his literary adaptations, The House of Mirth (2000), The Deep Blue Sea (2011), and Sunset Song (2015), and his Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion (2016).
Davies admires these women and depicts their lives with great empathy. In The Deep Blue Sea, Hester (Rachel Weisz) has broken the rules of marriage, leaving her older husband for a doomed, passionate affair with a younger man. It pushes her to the very brink of social isolation and sanity. Like Hester, Sunset Song’s Chris (Agyness Deyn) challenges society’s expectations. She yearns for an education and to be mistress of her own life, but must come into her own in a culture dominated by cruel masculinity. Davies’ own experience of an abusive childhood at the hands of a violent father is the basis of his acclaimed film, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). In A Quiet Passion, Davies clearly finds communion with Emily (Cynthia Nixon), who, like the filmmaker once did, experiences a profound crisis of faith. Like Emily, who declares, “I wish I could feel as others do,” Davies has also taken his difference and made art.
Lily Bart’s (Gillian Anderson) experience, however, is unique amongst Davies’ outsiders. If Davies accepts that the world can be cruel and demoralising, for most of his women, there is also hope. But for the protagonist of The House of Mirth, there is only increasing suffering and despair — no curtains open, as they do at the conclusion of The Deep Blue Sea, on a new, brighter day.
Lily’s freedom is curtailed by society from the start. She lives with her wealthy, severe aunt, on a modest inheritance that dwindles as she indulges her love of luxury and leisure. As she explains, “I am not rich, but life is very expensive.” Lily’s “vocation”, as Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) points out early in the film, is to marry. “Isn’t that what you were brought up for?” he asks. Lily must marry, not because she really wants to, but because it’s the appropriate thing for a woman to do. It’s a requirement shared by all of Davies’ female outsiders.
For a woman of Lily’s status within early 20th-century New York society — upper class yet effectively poor — this means marrying for money above love. Marriage is a mercantile transaction. In an era of social and sexual repression, the majority of women lacked real economic independence. Similar to Hester in The Deep Blue Sea, who is destitute without the financial support of her husband, Lily is dependent on a man’s resources for her very life.
Lily is beautiful and aware that her beauty is transactable. In the film’s opening scene, she emerges at the train station, from a cloud of steam, like an exquisitely plumed bird. Lily’s costumes throughout The House of Mirth, with their lace, veils, and feathers, highlight her ornamental appeal and function. But they also give her the appearance of a caged bird. In a later scene at the opera, Lily wears red amidst a crowd of men in black suits and women in neutral tones of cream and pale grey. While this flush of colour indicates her exoticism amongst the conformist masses, it also marks her out as an endangered species.
Lily recognises her precarious state. She worries she may have passed her use-by-date: “I’ve been about too long. People are getting tired of me.” Her “hunt for a husband” has become tiresome, and she struggles with the coy, feminine poses she is expected to strike. To give them the upper hand, Lily feigns piety and artlessness with all men — except Lawrence. Davies often captures Anderson’s face in close-up, her exaggerated expressions emphasising the painfully performative nature of Lily’s quest.
Davies recognises Lily’s flaws, that her frivolous nature partly contributes to her downfall. But he also admires her principles, in the same way he admires Hester’s convictions about love. Lily won’t trade on her beauty and play the part of mistress to Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd) or Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia). Lily possesses the key to freedom if she wants it: a series of letters between Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney) and Lawrence that reveal an affair. As Rosedale informs Lily when she reaches the end of her tether, she could use them to rehabilitate herself financially and socially. But Lily, unlike most of her set, can’t be bought.
Lily tries to adhere to “the rules of the game” but fails. She loves Lawrence, but lacks the courage, as he does, to act on it. Lawrence, a lawyer, must work for his fortune. He simply isn’t rich or well connected enough to be considered an appropriate suitor. While Lily is unwilling to break with convention here, a number of other seemingly minor infringements taint her. She smokes, gambles, flirts, and shows little interest in attending church. This repulses wealthy yet principled men, like dull Percy Gryce (Pearce Quigley), and attracts the unwanted attention of less principled ones, like Gus. In the film’s opening scene, she willingly risks her reputation by accepting an invitation to take tea alone with Lawrence in his flat. Like Emily, Lily doesn’t behave as a woman of her social class should.
Davies’ view of Lily’s world is far bleaker than the world he imagines for Hester, Chris, and Emily. He gives these women the chance to control their stories — Hester through her remembrances of the past, Chris through her intermittent voiceover, and Emily through her poetic creations. But Davies coolly observes Lily’s fate at a distance; she has little chance of escape or self-actualisation. Lily’s lack of narrative authority sees her regularly acted upon by others — punished for every minor incursion she commits and implicated in false ones. Lily is forced into friendships with people who wish her harm, like the devious, manipulative Bertha, because they hold the key to social acceptance. When Lily later finds herself working for the social climber Mrs Hatch, her outsider status increases, described by Lawrence as a “false position,” unnatural to her. But Lily is aware that she has long been excluded from society: “it’s only those on the inside who take the difference seriously.”
The House of Mirth opens with title cards that tell us that it is “New York 1905.” It closes with a similar declaration: “New York 1907”. Davies has talked about fighting for these affecting bookends, to indicate the vicious speed of Lily’s demise. Indeed, the cruel passage of time, so central to Davies’ concerns as a filmmaker, is a subtle portend throughout The House of Mirth. Within a subdued soundscape, Davies lets the rhythms of a ticking clock regularly puncture the silence. It marks the passing minutes, as time moves on without Lily. She is often out of time — too slow at reading the signs, too late to arrive at a decision that might help her, too naïve to act in her own defense. As Lily’s capital diminishes and her reputation is increasingly tarnished by Bertha’s machinations, the clock’s beats become more ominous — a time bomb, waiting to explode.
Davies uses mise-en-scène, especially interior space, to highlight Lily’s entrapment. Her aunt’s home, from where she’s expected to officially greet prospective suitors, resembles an oppressive mausoleum. Dark wood furnishings and heavy curtains create a somber atmosphere. These stifling interiors magnify Lily’s passivity and the sense that time marches on, in brighter spaces, without her. Her bedroom is especially shadowy. Windows rarely let in any more than a splinter of light. When Lily actively pulls blinds down rather than up, we feel her world become even more suffocating.
A brief yet key moment occurs at a party where a curtain opens to reveal Lily in a tableau vivant, dressed as “Summer” by the painter Jean-Antoine Watteau. It’s a moment that captures what Lawrence has earlier suggested, that Lily is “such a wonderful spectacle.” But this living commercial for her beauty and marriageability conceals a cruel ugliness. This is reminiscent of the extraordinary tableau that opens The Long Day Closes. A series of dissolves allows us to watch petals falling from roses, as if time passes right before our eyes. Both the roses and Lily are fading as Davies’ camera rests on them. Within this frame within a frame, Lily’s femininity is imagined as precarious and lethal, fleeting like the seasons. It is summer now, but summer won’t last. It’s a view that will be reinforced when the ‘Summer’ costume reappears strewn on her bed in the film’s grim finale.
The House of Mirth is much more than a period film of highly manicured surfaces and lush, plush furnishings. There is rage simmering within each painterly frame, and bubbling beneath every slow, observant camera movement. There is something more vicious at play here, too. When Lily joins the working classes and edges closer to poverty, Davies shows the extent to which hers is a world without safety nets for transgressive women. Despite illness and despair, Emily is comforted by her family. Hester hits rock bottom but finds strength to face another day. Chris endures extraordinary losses, but is strengthened by her primal ties to the land. But Lily has no such buffers. Most of her old friends simply dispose of her and don’t look back.
During her final meeting with Lawrence, Lily cries out in desperate regret and confusion: “I have tried hard. But life is difficult, and I am a useless person. And now I am on the rubbish heap!” She can’t fall any lower. It’s a brutal image of the darker side of being on the outside looking in.