By Leah Rozen
Updated January 08, 2001 12:00 PM

Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Laura Linney

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The tragedy of Lily Bart (Anderson), the smart but self-destructive heroine of Edith Wharton’s finest novel, is that while Lily has every chance to save herself, she can’t bring herself to make the moral and romantic compromises required. Saving herself, as it was understood in 1905 when The House of Mirth came out, meant marrying. Only a rich husband will do, for Lily has expensive tastes. Already 29 and dependent upon a wealthy aunt, Lily knows that time is running out. “I have been about too long,” she says. “People are getting tired of me.”

Director-screenwriter Terence Davies has turned Wharton’s examination of turn-of-the century New York City society into an eloquent, heartbreaking work. Anderson (TV’s The X-Files) is magnificent as Lily, giving a beautifully nuanced performance that captures the character’s blend of brains, imprudence, willfulness and generosity. She is aided by a fine cast, particularly Linney as a malicious rival and Anthony LaPaglia as a Wall Street parvenu who in the end is more honorable than any of Lily’s high society friends. (PG)

Bottom Line: Anderson is superb, and so’s the movie