By now it is a rule of thumb (well, my thumb, anyway) that a chief problem in filming a first-class novel is its prose. Other matters are much easier to deal with: extracting the plot, condensing it (usually necessary), and possibly rearranging it. But the better the novel, the less important is this plot-processing. The big trouble is in transmuting the very organism of a work in one art into another organism. Terence Davies's screenplay of The House of Mirth (Sony Pictures Classics) and the film he has made from it are painful reminders of that problem.
Davies is noted for two quasi-autobiographical films about his Liverpool boyhood. Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, both of which traded in the commonest cinematic currency of working-class life and pathos. Here, braving the bon ton of New York in the early 1900s, he seemed uncomfortable throughout, as if he had been invited to an Edith Wharton party for which he was not suitably dressed. Class snobbery is hardly the point. (What had Ang Lee of Taipei to do with the class in his excellent Sense and Sensibility?) The trouble is artistic gift— Davies's lack of it.
Scene after scene, shot after shot comes along on an assembly line, the film seeming menially manufactured as it rolls. Hardly ever do we get a camera movement or a framing or a sweep that suggests the grace and self-confidence of Wharton's prose, therefore of her world. Rich settings and good costumes help to a degree, but Davies's series of clunky two-shots and close-ups are the style of a director woefully aware that he has none. This is emphasized by what is his greatest lack: apparently, he had no vision of the film before he began.
Some Parnassian instances of the reverse. Antonioni said that, before he started LAvventura, he thought about making time and silence visible. Bergman said that he began writing Persona because of a fiash that he had of two women in large hats sitting in the sun, talking. Davies—evidently—began with little more than the urge to put this novel on film, with no prior vision, however small, of its cinematic body. As a result, the film has little of the panache and none ofthe force of Wharton's tragedy.
The protagonist, Lily Bart, was created by an author who obviously loved Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. (Early in her life Wharton even copied out passages from Elaubert's novel. Davies, in one of his few subtle touches, has Lily make her first appearance through the steam of a locomotive in a railroad station, thus suggesting Anna and her fate.) Lily, like her earlier sisters, is a woman crushed by being a woman—in a time when the understanding of women was not a requisite in the other gender. This devolution, more essential than plot data, eludes Davies. He gives us a succession of scenes disclosing Lily's poor decisions and unwise actions, but they are like a series of testimonies in a trial, isolated reports of actions rather than a cumulative swell.
His maladroit screenplay and direction are only partly responsible for the debacle: his casting seals the picture's fate. Gillian Anderson, as Lily, gives what can be called an understudy performance. We feel that the actress who ought to have done it, Julianne Moore, was not available, so they went ahead with Anderson (just as Joan Allen in The Contender seemed to be filling in for Meryl Streep). Anderson is not hopelessly bad, but, as Lily, there is never anything more to her than what she says and does. Large talents enlarge roles. (Anyone who has seen Moore as Elena in Vanya on 42nd Street knows what Lily could have been.) Dan Aykroyd, a modern smart-ass, plays Gus Trenor, the society leader whose crude seduction attempts crack his polished facade; but Aykroyd is never more than a modern smart-ass, so there is no facade to crack. Eleanor Bron has been an amateur actress for thirty- five years, capable only of imitating performances she has seen. Here, as the imperious Mrs. Peniston, she continues her amateur career. Anthony LaPaglia, playing Rosedale, certainly looks different from the Anglo-Saxon types around him, but he lacks the combined ambition and wryness ofthe Jewish financier who wants a place in this society partly to prove that they are unable to keep him out.
Two of the actors prosper. As Bertha Dorset, who suspects that Lily is a threat to her marriage, Laura Linney wields a gleaming stiletto. And Eric Stoltz, as Lily's faithful friend Lawrence Selden, has dignified sweetness. If only it were worth visiting The House of Mirth in order to see Linney and Stoltz. To a European town comes a beautiful young woman who makes trouble. The resultant film is a downward step in the career of a director who began well. These two statements apply both to Malena (Miramax) by Giuseppe Tornatore and to Chocolat (Miramax) by Lasse Hallstrom.
Malena comes off the better of the two. Tornatore began his career with Cinema Paradiso, which tickled memories of childhood infatuation with film and its liberating surge. Tornatore remembered his boyish friendship with the theater projectionist in his Sicilian town and—a commonplace in good art—made that town ours. Now he is back in that town, figuratively speaking, with an early adolescent boy and a different sort of infatuation during World War II (hardly autobiographical: Tornatore was born in 1956). This time the wistfulness seems fabricated.
Malena, lately arrived in town, is the lovely, modest wife of a local young man now away in the war. (Malena is played by the darkly feline Monica Bellucci.) All the adolescents in town, as well as all the older males, fantasize about her though she does nothing to encourage them. When news of her husband's death arrives, fantasies only increase. For Renato, the central adolescent of the story, an important rite of passage is his admission to a slightly older group of Malena-watchers. But all of these teenaged teasings (and self-relievings) are only Fellini leftovers, not exactly Amarcord revisited—Mateia isn't sufficiently insightful or deft—but Amarcord sighed for. The only affecting moments are those that breach Renato's point of view, which otherwise prevails, and take us into Malena's privacies. A film about Malena herself, her travails, the deep-reaching conclusion, would have been much more interesting and original, but Tornatore is mired in cliches.
Still, Malena isn't saccharine like Chocolat, which has so sickening a screenplay—by Robert Nelson Jacobs, from a novel by Joanne Harris—that it is depressing to see Hallstrom's name as director. True, his latest previous film. The Cider House Rules, was overrated, but he did make My Life as a Dog (in his native Sweden), which is among the finest of childhood films in the art's history, unsentimental yet steeped in feeling. Chocolat is like being force-fed chocolate for two hours.
The place is a pretty French town in the 1950s. (English dialogue.) To this town, which is swayed by a count who boasts that his ancestor drove out the Huguenots, come a young widow, Vianne, and her small daughter. Vianne opens a chocolaterie with a line of candies and cakes that would make Paris envious. How she learned her craft, and when and how she makes her goodies, are subjects left to the vaguely meta-physical. What is clear is that Vianne's character is sweeter than her products. Rarely, outside of Disney, has any young woman been so adorable.
Naturally the austere count hates Vianne as a pagan hedonist and does his worst to drive her out of town. It is impossible to tip the ending of this story: every reader knows it already. The only bitter touch in the picture is that the actors are much better than the fudge they slosh through. Juliette Binoche nearly makes Vianne credible. I wish that Alfred Molina, as the count, could find a way to move his performance into a better film. So should Judi Dench, as a grouchy grandma, along with Lena Olin as a near-crazed wife of the cafe-owner and lovely old John Wood as a shy dog-walking bachelor.
At least Tornatore, though his career does not ascend, seems to be making films he wants to make. But Hallstrom's career is becoming familiarly dismal. A director, often a European, shows true talent, is seized by big-money powers and is masticated to their wishes. "Don't lose what we hired you for," they say. "Just do it our way."
This article originally ran in the January 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.