I don't know what my reaction would have been if I'd seen this movie cold, but viewing it as a dramatization of Wharton's book, I found it two dimensional, missing many opportunities the book presented for character exploration and growth. This review focuses on the differences between the book and the film.
The movie was startingly unsubtle at times, which tended to take me out of the plot. For instance, in one emotional scene, when the cousin sobbed "Lawrence, Lawrence," as Lily exited the room, I rolled my eyes. It didn't help that they melded Lily's cousin and Lawrence's cousin into one character, diminishing their foil potention. Much of what the book revealed through character juxtaposition was lost that way, because the two cousins served as opposite sides of the Good v. Evil spectrum. In Wharton's pages, we saw Lily slowly shift from leaning to one side, to sliding towards the other, through her contrast to the cousin characters.
Lily's social standing isn't the only thing that changes as she descends into poverty. She evolves as her life devolves. The movie loses sight of this transition, because when we begin Lily isn't an especially shallow person herself, so we can't appreciate her developing substance as you do in the book.
The movie portrays her as someone who had no choice, but, in fact, she did have other choices and eschewed them. Her disdain for Gerty, a woman Lily eventually
came to look up to (who resented Lily, but never stooped to being less than
loving to her) told us a lot about Lily. We needed Gerty to show us all that was wrong with Lily as much as we needed Grace to show us all that was honorable.
I wanted to see the Lily who disparaged Gerty at first, scoffing at a woman who's cook also did the washing (with the result being that her food tasted like soap to Lily). I wanted to see the Lily who remarked that she differed from Gerty, because Gerty "likes being good, and I like being happy." The movie showed us too much of the good Lily from the first, so that the evolution was not as sharp or interesting as it could have been.
Furthermore, in the book, it was Grace Stepney who was quietly in love with Seldon, not Gerty. The movie basically eliminates Gerty (and her goodness) entirely. A shame, because not only did Gerty illuminate Lily in the book, but she was a tool used to explore the character of Selden as well. Selden chided Lily saying that she shouldn't go to visit Gerty on wash day, if she didn't like the idea that Gerty's cook doubled as her laundry woman, but in many ways, he was as far from attaining the Gerty ideal (of humble perfection) as Lily was and there was no Gerty there, as measure, to bring about his ultimate realization of this fact and make him conscious of his hypocrisy.
The movie plot advanced, but the characters didn't as much as Wharton's did. If they'd focused on the character development, then Lily's choice not to automatically use Bertha's letters, would have been more profound. I think the movie Lily was so good that it was hard to understand how sorely she WAS tempted to do the unconscionable in marriage, in blackmail, in life.
To the book's Lily, the unethical was not unthinkable at all, just ultimately undoable and that's why it devastated her so that Lawrence was able to read her thoughts so well, but never appreciated how pristine her deeds were in contrast to those thoughts -- until it was too late. Because he could see into her soul, he assumed the worst. But there is something much more empathetic (and human) about the person who is tempted to do wrong, but overcomes that temptation, than in the person who is never tempted.
The movie never let us glimpse the younger Lily's disdain for the world beneath her upper society or for even the life she could have had on the edge of it, as a lawyer's wife. In that position she could have lived respectably, just not frivolously. The movie doesn't acknowledge her rejection of everything modest and inner drive to be at the center of her social set. Instead, the film plot aligns her quest for wealthy connections, with a need to maintain the necessities of life. They made Lily resemble an Austen protagonist who would end up penniless if she didn't marry well. But at the beginning of Wharton's book, Lily didn't face a life of poverty at all. She wasn't grasping out of necessity. She was motivated by ambition and self-aggrandizement. Her values increased as her social status declined.
As for the acting, unfortunately, Stolz struck me as petrified wood. Gillian Anderson? As an X-Files fan, I suppose I am spoiled. I know what she can do with quiet, so I'm less fazed by noise and tears. Of course, there are those X-Files critics (famously honored in The Simpsons' episode The Springfield Files ) who claim that Anderson is incapable of showing any expression at all.
They think the liveliest thing about Scully is the color of her hair. I suppose Mirth would come as a revelation to them. Since I think Gillian blossoms in the intensity of silence, the Mirth scene I liked best was probably the one with Bertha, after Lily has been accused of arranging an evening alone with George and suddenly realizes that she has been framed as the correspondent in any divorce George might contemplate. I loved the dawning awareness crossing GA's face.
Still, in the book Lily was a full match for Bertha Dorset, never out of her league. She simply made a conscious decision to exit the league sometimes. The movie has Gus Trenor's wife telling Lily in the beginning that she doesn't have the ability to compete with Bertha's nastiness and really, that just wasn't true. The literary Lily was not outwitted by Bertha, but rather chose to take the high road. I wish the film's Lily hadn't been so -- so innocent. The naivete only diminishes both her tragedy and moral triumph. Wharton's heroine was more proud than passive.
Of course, I loved the scene with Lily and Lawrence when she said, "love me, but don't tell me so." There were some scenes that were done so beautifully that I just wanted to cut them from the context of the movie and hang them on a wall.