Heritage and Post-Heritage: The House of Mirth on Page and Screen


In the critical discourse surrounding filmic adaptations of literary works, the concept of “fidelity” frequently rears its ugly head – the idea that a film’s literary source material is a sacrosanct text, and that any changes to plot, character or theme are somehow violations of a prior artistic vision. In 2000, English director Terence Davies was subjected to numerous accusations of artistic violation when he adapted Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth to the screen, many critics claiming that Davies had blunted the novel’s social critique.


In this essay, I propose to remove The House of Mirth from this fidelity debate, and instead examine the book and subsequent filmic adaptation as independent works of art, each addressing different eras in different ways. In Wharton’s case, she utilizes carefully sculpted language to dissect the patriarchal and cannibalistic Knickerbocker society of turn-of-the-century New York. In Davies’ film, the director deploys equally careful compositions and editing in order to offer a satirical and parodic rethinking of what film theorist Andrew Higson terms the British “Heritage Cinema” of the 1980s and 1990s.

During the 1980s, a restructuring of the British economy under Margaret Thatcher led to economic malaise, social and political upheaval, and a loss of national prestige in the global community. One of the ways England tried to deal with these difficulties, and compensate for the perceived crisis in national identity accompanying them, was through the growth of a “heritage culture” or “heritage industry”, which has often been described as a retreat from the county’s problematic present into a reassuring and palpably nostalgic evocation of the past. One of the most popular – and controversial – components of this new heritage culture was the “heritage film,” which Andrew Higson originally defined as “a relatively small group of ‘British’ costume dramas of the 1980s and early 1990s that detailed aspects of the English past and that shared various circumstantial, formal, and thematic characteristics,” most especially their “emphasis on the upper and middle classes in the early decades of the twentieth century” (p. 11). Later Higson would broaden this definition to include, more generally, any films that “engage in one way or another with English heritage. That is to say, they all offer some version of the English past, or some representation of the history of Englishness or the English cultural heritage, whether at home or abroad, in literature or reality” (p. 25). By expanding the definition of the heritage film in this manner, Higson is able to draw into his critical discussion filmic texts that otherwise would have been excluded from this discourse, including international co-productions (such as Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim[UK/France 2000], based on the novel The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy), and more irreverent works that deliberately and self-consciously subvert the standard imagery and thematic tropes of traditional heritage movies (for instance, Sally Potter’s Orlando [UK 1992] and Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park [UK 1999]). Claire Monk dubbed this latter group “post-heritage,” and it is a particularly apt moniker in light of the decidedly postmodern self-awareness, hybridity, and critical playfulness these films exhibit (quoted in Higson, p. 36).

One film swept into the heritage discussion under this revised rubric of Higson’s is the 2000 cinematic adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, The House of Mirth (UK 2000). Even though the novel’s author was American, and the story takes place predominantly in turn-of-the-century New York, Higson includes the film in his study because it was written and directed by English filmmaker Terence Davies, funded partially by British companies and filmed almost entirely in Great Britain (mostly in and around Glasgow), and, he believes, it “shares much stylistically and iconographically with costume dramas set in England and dealing with the English” (p. 26). Indeed, he goes on to describe the movie as fastidiously reverential, and even calls it an example of “the more traditional strands of heritage filmmaking”, linking it with the works of James Ivory and Ismael Merchant (p. 56). While Higson is certainly correct in asserting that Davies’ adaptation deserves a place in any serious discussion of heritage cinema, he is equally incorrect, I contend, in characterizing the film as reverential or traditional. On the contrary, in The House of Mirth, Terence Davies movingly relates Wharton’s tragic story of Lily Bart on one narrative level, while he simultaneously employs creative mise-en-scène, camera work, costuming and casting to effectively deconstruct the very traditions of the heritage genre in which he is working. Far from being an austere or straightforward text, Davies’ pointed film – with its artful negotiation of pastiche and parody – could much more accurately be categorized as one of Claire Monk’s irreverently postmodern post-heritage works.

Despite the widespread popularity and profitability of the heritage films of the 1980s and 1990s, the genre has not been without its critics. As John Hill points out, many have accused the movies of exhibiting a “globally institutionalized kind of nostalgia” in which “‘real history’ is replaced by nostalgic simulacra or pastiches of the past” (p. 75). In other words, these critics see the more traditional heritage films as being a variation of the nostalgia films taken to task by Fredric Jameson. According to Jameson, the nostalgia film is guilty of aesthetic colonization of the past, a past that is displayed or examined not through “genuine historicity” but rather “through stylistic connation, conveying ‘pastness’ by the glossy qualities of the image” (p. 19). Higson explains that this leads to a critical shallowness, in which the “past is reproduced as flat depthless pastiche, where the reference point is not the past itself, but other images, other texts” (p. 64). By going to such obsessive lengths to stylishly recreate the past through lavish sets, costumes, verdant gardens and grand landscapes, the traditional heritage film actually creates a perfect place that never truly existed: an imagined England and Englishness, an imagined national past in which the country is always pristine and desirable. This is an idealized England, an England cobbled together from romantic stories and picture books, a vast collection of images and surfaces in which history becomes a spectacle to be conspicuously consumed like any other artifact or entertainment, all at the expense of “genuine historical endeavor” (Higson, p. 52). And, more often than not, in these films, the gauzy pastoral landscapes are hardly ever tainted by modern industrialization or urbanization, or the rumbling undercurrents of class conflict.

The film that seems to be singled out for derision most frequently by such critics of the heritage genre is director James Ivory’s 1992 film Howard’s End (UK 1992), based on the novel by E.M. Forster, and it might be useful here to discuss Ivory’s so-called traditional heritage film in order to later counterpoint it with Davies’ work. From the moment Howard’s End was released, it was embraced by popular reviewers for its exhaustively researched and meticulously detailed sets and costumes recreating England’s Edwardian era. Many immediately recognized and embraced it as the quintessential heritage film, and it was even suggested that it might serve as a useful tool for attracting tourists to England. Others critics and theorists, however, took a less rapturous, more Jamesonian approach to the work. Pamela Church Gibson, for instance, chastises the film for the “fetishistic value” it places on “the ostentatious display of period detail”, arguing that this “palpable pleasure in parading visual splendor of the past” undermines any of the social criticism that may have been present in Forster’s original story, and instead creates a visual paean to the privileged past of the British upper classes (pp. 115-116). This line of attack would be echoed by others, including, initially, Andrew Higson. In his later rethinking of the heritage film, though, Higson modifies this critique, and offers a more generous reading of Howard’s End as a multivalent text, one which can be seen as visually representing the new depthlessness bemoaned by Jameson, but also interpreted with equal validity as narratively interrogating “national traditions, social formations, and identities” (p. 149). While Higson is undoubtedly correct to point out that Howard’s End, on the narrative level, does contain certain elements of critical social commentary, if one conducts a close comparison between Forster’s novel and Ivory’s subsequent adaptation, one cannot escape the suspicion that Higson is being a bit too generous with this latter rereading of the film.

In an interview with the New York Times, James Ivory once confessed that, when it comes to the décor of his films, he often likes to “lay it on with a trowel” (Maslin, p. C1). This excessive impulse has led Ivory to develop a visually lush and luxuriant directorial style, one that he himself has termed “a matter of showmanship” and “larger than life” (quoted in Higson, p. 38). And while this visual sumptuousness may provide an undeniable feast for the eyes, it also – as his critics have pointed out – frequently seems to work at odds with the narrative he is trying to tell. This is especially true in the case of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.  Even though Forster’s novel, originally published in 1910, begins with the epigraph “Only Connect…”, the story itself seems to be as much about disconnection as connection: the disjunction between the rich and poor, the growing city and the shrinking countryside, the world of business and the world of culture (p. IV). And even though the story nominally ends with a kind of union between the upper and lower classes, the world of the city and the world of the country, as Barbara Rosecrance has shown, Forster employs irony to effectively suggest “the failures alike of the business mind and the liberalism of upper-middle class intellectuals” and to ultimately undercut “the novel’s attempts at social reconciliation” (p. 107). Differently put, Forster offers the reader no easy answers to modernity’s rigors and dilemmas. The same cannot be said of Ivory’s film.

In transferring Howard’s End to the screen (with the help of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant), Ivory chose to smooth over many of the narrative’s ironies and harsher edges in favor of rich, vibrant cinematography and characterizations that have more in common with the classical Hollywood dramas of Ivory’s youth than Forster’s fiction. This change is perhaps most clearly evidenced in the treatment of Leonard Bast. In Forster’s novel, Bast is portrayed as a “colorless, toneless” member of the working class, caught up in the relentlessly “grey tides” of London (pp. 97, 84). In Ivory’s film, conversely, Leonard’s world is anything but grey: his apartment is filled with deep reds and blacks, and he daydreams of strolling through fields of impossibly blue flowers while studying maps of the stars. No cog beaten down by class distinctions and the industrial system is this Leonard: he is a dreamer, a man who is too proud to take charity when it is offered, a man who is killed not while trying to apologize for despoiling his social superior but while trying to profess his love for her. In Ivory’s hands, Leonard becomes not the weary, complex yet ultimately defeated character of Forster’s Howard’s End, but a new, stronger, more passionate Leonard, a Leonard who is unafraid to fantasize of love and Technicolor landscapes.

Other characters receive a similarly glossy treatment in Ivory’s Howard’s End, thereby losing much of their complexity and muting Forster’s social criticism in the process. Margaret Schlegel, for instance, seems stripped of her intellectual contradictions and portrayed instead as a love-starved woman who stares longingly out of her window at passing wedding processions, and is more than happy to dance obliviously with her suitor under a map of the colonized and carved-up Africa. Even imperialist Henry Wilcox, as portrayed by the inherently charismatic Anthony Hopkins, is humanized to such an extent that – as Sarah Street puts it – “his function as a symbol of exploitative capitalism is forgotten by the end of the film” (Transatlantic Crossings, p. 197). And Howard’s End itself, far from being the unassuming edifice of Forster’s novel, is in Ivory’s version a stately and delightful home that appears lifted directly from a Masterpiece Theater miniseries. This is not to say that all of Forster’s ironic jabs and satirical social observations have been drained from Ivory’s adaptation. It is simply that Ivory’s florid visuals and Hollywood-ization of characters all but overwhelm whatever traces of irony and social satire that remain under a deluge of nostalgic spectacle. Of course, as Higson asserts, Forster’s novel was itself a nostalgic work; but it was nostalgic for “a mid-Victorian golden age rather than for the Edwardian present” (p. 82). Under Ivory’s guidance, this nostalgia is redirected toward a kind of idealized Edwardianism which is infused with “a pre-lapsarian sense of lost elegance and stability” (Hill, p. 85). In other words, Ivory is nostalgic for an England that was not Forster’s historical reality, but an England of his own imagining: an England of bright-hued vistas and opulent splendors that had yet to be truly sullied by modernity or war. Ivory’s referent is a rhapsodized concept of Englishness or “pastness”, and for this reason he does seem vulnerable to Jamesonian accusations of displacing a critical perspective on the “material dimensions of historical context” with a stylish yet depthless pastiche evincing a marked “fascination with surfaces” and “decoration and display,” and offering us an “‘obsessive accumulation of comfortably archival detail’” (Higson, p. 64).

Pastiche, however, need not always be the villain in postmodern culture. In his defense of Ivory’s Howard’s End in particular and the heritage film in general, Higson cites the work of Pam Cook, and her argument that pastiche – while seen by some as depthless and artificial – can also be utilized in a more playful manner to:

explore concerns that may have nothing to do with the implied historical setting, but everything to do with the moment in which the telling of the story unfolds…it can enable the story-teller to explore concerns that may have everything to do with the present (pp. 66-67).

That is to say, in Cook’s formulation, pastiche, pace Jameson, is not by definition amputated of all critical or satirical impulses. Rather, as Linda Hutcheon writes of postmodern parody, it is capable of both complicity and critique: of mobilizing the forms and contents of the past, while also parodically rethinking and reworking them (p. 5); of incorporating and challenging, installing and slyly subverting, prior traditions and conventions in order to effect an intertextual dialogue in which “the past and present are judged in each other’s light” (p. 39). Of course, one may be hard pressed to divine how James Ivory is attempting to assess our postmodern moment in Howard’s End, unless one interprets his turn to a semi-idyllic Edwardian era as a blanket condemnation and rejection of contemporary culture altogether. The same cannot be said, however, for those cinematic works of pastiche that Clair Monk has labeled post-heritage. If anything, these texts seem asconcerned with engaging the present as the past, often in a pointedly barbed and interrogative manner. This is especially true of Terence Davies’ adaptation of The House of Mirth, a film that utilizes Wharton’s tale of turn-of-the-century New York’s high society as the narrative framework through which to visually (and critically) engage with a very current issue: the rise of the heritage film genre itself.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff suggests that one of Edith Wharton’s motivations for writing The House of Mirth was to respond to a spate of novels exemplified by Henry James’ Daisy Miller – novels in which the death of a young woman is seen “principally in terms of the aesthetic-moral effect it has upon a sensitized, lover-like man” (p. 338). Wharton wanted to intervene in this artistic discourse and explore, for a change, what it might be like to see a young woman’s tragic death from the woman’s point of view. Her novel, then, is working on several levels at once: Wharton is using carefully sculpted, often lyrical language to relate the downfall of Lily Bart in a thoroughly damning social satire of New York’s high society; at the same time, she is engaging in a critical dialogue with her fellow, contemporary novelists, taking them to task for what she sees as the failures (phallocentrism) of their recent works. Davies, I submit, adopts a similarly multi-layered and dialogic approach in transferring The House of Mirth to the screen, layering into his work specifically parodic allusions to the stylistic excesses and abuses of the more reverential strands of heritage filmmaking typified by Merchant Ivory productions (e.g., extravagant settings, elaborate costumes, dazzling cinematography). Stated another way, Davies, not unlike Wharton before him, is operating on dual levels here: in his adaptation, he incorporates and then destabilizes, installs and then subverts the familiar generic markers of traditional heritage films. Thus, one could characterize him as working within an established genre, while concomitantly instantiating a critical exchange with other practitioners of that genre. He is, as Hutcheon might put it, challenging the “process from within” (p. 20). A closer examination of Davies’ text should help clarify this proposition.

Even if Higson did not notice a discernible difference between Terence Davies’ directorial style in The House of Mirth and that of the Merchant Ivory team, numerous film reviewers picked up on it immediately. Writing in the Village Voice, Dennis Lim commented on Davies’ “severity,” averring “The House of Mirth is notably free of plush, frilly Merchant Ivory distractions” (p. 58). Similarly, J. Hoberman noted that Davies “resists the idealizing soft-focus glamour or nostalgic ostentatious opulence of similar period adaptations to conjure up a stark” vision which is “no fetishized lost world” (p. 137). This denial of plush and soft-focused pleasures is evident from the very first scene of the film: a train, pulling into a lonely, smoky train station (a far cry from the Grand Central Station of Wharton’s opening scene); a figure in silhouette, surrounded by shadows; protagonist Lily Bart, played by Gillian Anderson, emerging into dim, gauzy light as Davies moves immediately into close-up. Already, this is a clear break from the traditional visual style of Merchant Ivory filmmaking. As Higson observes, James Ivory rarely uses close-ups in his heritage films, instead relying almost exclusively on long and medium shots in order to give “a more aesthetic angle on the period settings and the objects which fill it” (p. 38). Not so in the case of Davies. On the contrary, he seems to go to great lengths in order to deny viewers that very aesthetic angle. Most conversations in the film take place in close-up, and when Davies does give viewers a glimpse of period settings and the objects which fill them, the interior scenes are uniformly murky (like the train station), or hazy, or crammed with screens, curtains and frosted/fogged-over windows that partially obscure the sets and deny glimpses of the outside world, giving the film a claustrophobic feel and spatially and temporally disorienting the viewer. This disorientation is especially interesting when one considers the lengths to which traditional heritage film directors go in order to create a palpable nostalgia for a determinable sense of place and time, and it is worth exploring in greater depth.

There is a small yet intriguing discourse surrounding the use of the close-up in cinema. Béla Balázs, for one, posits that a close-up of a human face “is complete and comprehensible in itself and therefore we need not think of it as existing in space and time” (p. 306). He goes on to say that the close-up forces viewers to lose all references to space and focus solely on “expression, or…emotions, moods, intentions and thoughts” (pp. 306-307). Gilles Deleuze builds on this idea, claiming that a close-up “abstracts [its subject] from all spatio-temporal co-ordinates…it raises it to the state of Entity” (p. 96). If one accepts this premise that the close-up somehow undermines filmic spatio-temporal specificity, then one can interpret Davies’ extensive deployment of the device throughout The House of Mirth as an attempt to disrupt the very evocation of space and time that other heritage directors strive so hard to create. Rather than eschewing close-ups, as does Ivory for fear of missing a single detail of his painstakingly recreated Edwardian England, Davies basks in them, deliberately disrupting his viewers’ attempts to situate themselves in a fixed location (New York) or year (turn-of-the-century), placing them instead within the “expressions” of his actors. Davies’ dark and muted interiors have a similarly disorienting result. Deleuze theorizes that in certain instances, through the “negation of perspective and of depth,” medium shots – even those not containing an actor’s face – can, like the close-up, extract themselves from spatio-temporal coordinates and create a space that “is no longer a particular determined space, it has become any-space-whatever” (pp. 108-109). An argument could be made that Davies achieves an equivalent effect through his use of shallow focus and masked, gloomy, under-lit backgrounds: his interiors, unlike Ivory’s, resist identification with any particular place or age (Britain during the early 1900s, for instance), and form an indeterminate shadow-land of train cars, bedrooms, and parlors that could easily be in any number of countries, during any number of eras. Along those same lines, even when Davies is forced to resort to exterior shots, those shots avoid any distinguishing landmarks, and are often slightly overexposed, making them monochromatic and almost painful to look at; again, Davies is denying and simultaneously satirizing one of the primary pleasures of traditional heritage movies (in this case, the joys of landscape), and making it difficult for us to pinpoint where and when this story is situated. Indeed, by the end of the film, when Davies flashes the title “New York 1907” across the screen – he also begins with such a title – one cannot help but think that he is being ironic. He has taken such pains to subvert any spatio-temporal moorings, to undercut any of the nostalgia for place and period that films like Howard’s End so actively court, it is clear that Davies sees his tale of class enmity and social cannibalism not as a sentimental evocation of New York’s Knickerbocker society, but a parodic portrait of timeless, nation-less human nature.

Along with the aesthetic angle on majestic settings, another hallmark of Merchant Ivory films is the fluid camera movements which linger lovingly over expensive antiques and beautiful artworks and furniture from the past.  Davies, not one to leave a heritage hallmark untroubled, does not use a sweeping tracking shot, a trademark of his previous films, until roughly an hour into The House of Mirth, and when he finally resorts to it he does so for markedly different reasons than James Ivory. Davies pans away from Lily Bart in mid-conversation (thereby explicitly calling attention to the unmotivated camera movement) in order to give viewers a better look at a mantelpiece beside her, covered with what appear to be priceless vases, picture frames, and other antiques – the only time in the film he closely focuses on such items. Before viewers have a chance to admire those treasures, however, Davies dissolves to that same mantelpiece, now barren, and proceeds to track through Lily’s house, now closed down for the winter, in a series of extended camera movements: we see the beautiful furniture hidden beneath drop cloths; the tables robbed of their flowers and artworks; the cavernous rooms sterile and empty. The tracking shots end outside of the country house during a storm, the grounds battered by wind and rain, the sky heavy and ominous. This is quite a change from the bucolic and colorfully pastoral images Ivory provides of Howard’s End.

With these tracking shots, then, in conjunction with the frequent use of close-ups, the suppression/problematization of aesthetic angles on interiors and exteriors, and the resultant destabilization of spatio-temporal coordinates, Davies appears to be engaging in a deliberate intertextual dialogue with traditional heritage film directors like James Ivory. That is, Davies is invoking certain tropes of the genre (i.e., “cinema of attractions”-style, mise-en-scène and camera movements intended to generate nostalgia for a certain sense of place and pastness) while obviously and overtly stripping them of their attractions and derailing any nostalgic impulse. If there were any question as to Davies’ deconstructive intent here, he makes it manifest by having the character Lily – just as the tracking shots discussed above are beginning – respond to the news that a friend is vacationing in London by exclaiming, “How unsophisticated of him!” This line appears nowhere in Wharton’s novel, and can therefore be read, with some degree of confidence, as a mischievous yet purposeful poke in the ribs to the sophisticated school of English heritage filmmaking. Sophistication, Davies seems to be saying, doesn’t necessarily have to include the fetishization of history and its artifacts.

The idea of fetishization also comes into play when discussing the use of costumes in heritage films. Stella Bruzzi has argued that the use of historical clothes in certain costume dramas has become so fetishistic and iconic as to function as “spectacular interventions that interfere with the scenes in which they appear and impose themselves onto the character they adorn” (quoted in Street, Costume and Cinema, p. 5).[1] Deleuze makes an assertion similar to Bruzzi’s when he writes that in “the costume film…the ‘habitus’ are inseparable from the outfits” (p. 163). Davies makes great satiric hay out of this concept of iconic clothing in The House of Mirth. The character of Aunt Julia, for example, is coded as stern and unforgiving through restrictive black outfits which, if historically accurate, are at the very least being utilized in an exaggerated and symbolic manner. Later, when Aunt Julia complains about Lily being too “conspicuous,” we are treated to a shot of Lily, clad in a startlingly bright red gown, slowly making her way up a flight of theater stairs, surrounded by extras clad uniformly in dark and drab colors. Not surprisingly, after this outing at the theater, Aunt Julia chastises Lily for being “a bad color.” Once more, Davies is invoking a standard device of the heritage film – costume as fetish, costume as iconic signifier of character – and, by visually hyperbolizing and drawing attention to it, ironically undermining and parodying the device.

The notion of women being on display, as hinted at by this iconic/ironic use of costuming, in fact becomes a running theme throughout The House of Mirth, and it is a significant one because it can be interpreted in several ways. First, one can view it as a continuation of Edith Wharton’s argument that patriarchal society forces women into the role of being “ornamental” (Ammons, p. 356). Cynthia Griffin Wolff links Wharton’s outrage to the growth of the Art Nouveau movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, which essentially put forth the doctrine that a “woman’s capacity to be decorative is her chief attraction” (p. 322). Wharton mocks this concept in her novel through the satirical use of tableaux vivants, and Davies does much the same thing in his film, even extending the metaphor by turning an evening at the opera into, essentially, an assortment of tableaux vivants that put the high society ladies “on display” for those not fortunate enough to land box seats.[2]  But, in addition to lampooning society’s objectification of women, Davies’ use of tableaux can be read on another level. Pamela Church Gibson has posited that “[h]eritage films of the 90s became increasingly ‘painterly.’ This is particularly notable in the use of tableaux” (p. 117). Davies’ extensive and clearly self-conscious deployment of tableaux throughout The House of Mirth, therefore, could be construed as a continuation of the director’s attempt to challenge the heritage genre from the inside out, by referencing traditional generic features but for acutely parodic ends.

Tableaux are not the only painterly allusion present in The House of Mirth. In an interview promoting the film, Davies stated that he decided to cast Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart on the basis “of her Singer Sargent face” (ironically, Edith Wharton once penned a biting critique of the portraitist) (quoted in Lim, p. 58). Regardless of Davies’ own affinity for John Singer Sargent’s paintings, however, he certainly had to be aware that most contemporary viewers were far more likely to associate Anderson with her one previous starring role on television’s sci-fi drama The X-Files, making her a curious choice for the lead in his period piece. Equally as curious was his decision to cast the majority of supporting roles as seemingly “against type” as the lead: The Blues Brothers’ (USA 1980) Dan Aykroyd as a fiscally and sexually ruthless industrialist; Australian Anthony LaPaglia as an ambitious, Jewish-American businessman; indie darling Eric Stoltz as the dilettante who, through his weakness, may prove himself the true villain of the story. These peculiar casting decisions begin to lose their mysteriousness, though, when viewed in context with Hill’s observation that traditional heritage films are uniformly packed with quality British actors “more commonly associated with the stage” than Hollywood (p. 81).[3] By appearing in so many heritage movies, these actors have themselves become a kind of signifier: they carry with them, from role to role, an extratextual currency, a connotation of elegance and sophistication. When these actors appear onscreen, audiences anticipate a soft-focused and safely nostalgic recreation of some opulent yesteryear. Davies confounds such expectations from the opening credits onward by forgoing such quality British actors in favor of his slightly motley, miscast crew; rather than intertextual associations with other Merchant Ivory spectaculars, Davies’ cast invites more temporally disrupting comparisons to modern-day narratives involving bluesmen on the lam, a disfigured teenager, or even an FBI agent on the hunt for alien life. Davies enhances this disruptive element by having his cast deliver their lines in a vaguely affectless monotone, much the way Stanley Kubrick did in Barry Lyndon (USA 1975). Far from encouraging viewers to identify with his characters and settle into a comforting and reassuring sense of pastness, Davies fights against it at every turn. Even when it comes to casting and performance, evidently, Terence Davies cannot resist the impulse to tweak the traditions of the heritage genre, and send a satirical shot across the bow of the Merchant Ivory aesthetic.

Fredric Jameson has defined pastiche, in part, as “the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style” (p. 17). Unlike parody, however, pastiche, as Jameson sees it, is “a neutral practice of such mimicry” without any of parody’s subversive motives and satiric impulses (p. 17). While one could make a compelling argument that some works of pastiche, such as James Ivory’s Howard’s End, are devoid of the satiric impulse, it would be harder to make that claim about Terence Davies’ film The House of Mirth. Far from representing the traditional strands of heritage filmmaking (to return to Andrew Higson’s words), The House of Mirth strives greatly to undermine and critique those staid generic traditions through artful and parodic mise-en-scène, camera work, costuming and casting. For confirmation of this fundamental difference between the traditional heritage film and Davies’ work, one need look no further than the final shot of The House of Mirth. Whereas Howard’s End concludes on a deeply nostalgic and relatively happy Hollywood-ized note, Davies’ long day closes with Lily Bart sprawled across her bed in a sleazy, broken down hotel room, dead by suicide.[4] The House of Mirth, as opposed to the Merchant Ivory oeuvre, is not about fuzzy, reassuring reenactments of the past designed to help us escape our troubled modernity. Terence Davies’ cinematic world is a far darker and more disquieting place, a world with no pre-lapsarian elegance or soft pastoral landscapes to comfort us. He offers no dreams of escape, through vast fields of blue flowers or otherwise – just his own uniquely ironic, satiric, and yes even parodic cinematic vision. A vision that is decidedly post-heritage.

Works Cited

Elizabeth Ammons, “Edith Wharton’s Hard-Working Lily: The House of Mirth and the Marriage Market.” A Norton Critical Edition: Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. pp. 345-357.
Béla Balázs, “The Face of Man.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. pp. 306-311.
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
E.M. Forster, Howard’s End. 1910. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.
Pamela Church Gibson, “Fewer Weddings and More Funerals: Changes in the Heritage Film.” British Cinema of the 90s. Ed. Robert Murphy. London: BFI Publishing, 2000. pp. 115-124.
John Hill, British Cinema in the 1980s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Andrew Higson, English Heritage, English Drama: Costume Drama Since 1980. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
J. Hoberman, “100 Years of Solitude.” Village Voice 26 Dec. 2000: p. 137.
Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Dennis Lim, “Hothouse Flower.” Village Voice12 Dec. 2000: pp. 58-59.
Janet Maslin, “Finding Realities to Find a Film’s Illusions.” New York Times 12 Mar. 1992: C1.
Barbara Rosecrance, “Howard’s End.” E.M. Forster: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. pp. 107-134.
Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, Volume 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture. London and New York: Verso, 1994.
Elaine Showalter, “The Death of the Lady (Novelist): Wharton’s House of Mirth.” A Norton Critical Edition: Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. pp. 357-372.
Sarah Street, Costume and Cinema: Dress Codes in Popular Film. London: Wallflower Press, 2001.
—. Transatlantic Crossings: British Feature Films in the United States. New York: Continuum, 2002.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “Lily Bart and the Beautiful Death.” A Norton Critical Edition: Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. pp. 320-339.


[1] It should be noted that Bruzzi also suggests this function might have a positive manifestation as well – an important point to remember, when one considers how often costume dramas and so-called women’s films are dismissed by critics directing, as Raphael Samuel puts it, their “misogynist” hostility toward the very details of female culture these genres highlight (p. 267).
[2] These opera tableaux also craftily emphasize the degree to which the ladies’ public behavior is a type of social performance.
[3] The same names pop up in cast lists again and again: Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter.
[4]In the novel, Wharton implies that Lily’s overdose of chloral is accidental; Davies has Lily clearly take her own life, even framing her body so that the leftover, blood-red chloral seems to seep directly from her symbolically slashed wrist. Wharton also provides Lily with a final dream – in which she cradles a child and finds a moment of joy – that has been interpreted as everything from “an escapist fantasy of motherhood” to a representation of Lily’s “awakened sense of loving solidarity and community” (Showalter, p. 370). Davies elides this scene from his text, denying Lily even that small, last pleasure.

Created on: Thursday, 29 April 2010

About the Author

John Hodgkins

About the Author

John Hodgkins

John Hodgkins is the author of The Drift: Affect, Adaptation, and New Perspectives on Fidelity, and his essays have appeared in such publications as Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance, College Literature, Film and History, and Journal of Popular Film and Television, among others. He is currently an Assistant Professor of English at CUNY-Borough of Manhattan Community College, and can be reached at jhodgkins@bmcc.cuny.eduView all posts by John Hodgkins →