Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) arrives in New York in 1905, emerging from a cloud of railway steam and making her way to a secret visit with her friend Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz) at his flat. Although they are attracted to each other, Lily can't marry this eligible bachelor because he doesn't have enough money for her needs.
Later at the country home of businessman Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd) and his wife, Lily unsuccessfully tries to win the affection of Percy Gryce (Pearce Quigley), a wealthy but boring man. On hearing of her financial difficulties, Gus offers to invest her savings. Later this smug chauvinist tries to make a move on Lily, which she spurns with anger. Now she's deeper in debt than ever.
A way out of her desperate straits is offered by Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), a self-made man who wants to marry her. Since he is nouveau riche, she turns him down. Facing more troubles than ever, Lily joins her socialite friend Bertha Dorset (Laura Linney) and her husband George (Terry Kinney) on a vacation in Monte Carlo. Just when she is at her most vulnerable state, Bertha uses her as a shield to cover her own affair with another man; she accuses Lily of seducing George. Now a social pariah, Lily has only a little money left from a small inheritance from her aunt. She takes a series of poor jobs, first as a secretary, then as a milliner.
This artful and meticulously rendered screen adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth is a melancholy tale. Writer and director Terence Davies (The Long Day Closes) pays close attention to the small gestures and details in the drama that are symbolic references to the protagonist's plight: nervous movements of hands, anxious glances around rooms, the tremor of the lips when a cigarette is lit, and the trepidation while holding a teacup. Gillian Anderson gives a strong performance that proves she has moved beyond her television series persona on The X-Files.
Although Lily puts herself in jeopardy at the outset with her gold-digging ways, she does not deserve the battering and the betrayals she receives at the hands of relatives and friends. And her protection of her friend Seldon at the end has a definite nobility to it. Wharton's insights into the difficulties of single women trying to make their way in society on their own are as true today as they were a hundred years ago.