Lily Bart is a beautiful socialite accustomed to comfort and luxury. Along with her younger cousin, Grace Stepney, she lives with her wealthy aunt, Julia Peniston. Through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, she learns of the bitter consequences for a single woman without wealth, living in an uncaring society.
Lily genuinely admires lawyer Lawrence Selden, but he is too poor for her to seriously consider marrying. Her choices are limited to coarse, vulgar Simon Rosedale, a rising financier, and wealthy but dull Percy Gryce. Lily’s friend Judy Trenor urges her to pursue Gryce. But Lily can't help preferring Selden. During a country weekend, they take a long walk and share an innocent kiss. Gryce sees them and leaves abruptly. Fearful for her future, a dejected Lily pours out her troubles to Judy's husband, Gus Trenor. He leads her to believe he will help her earn money through investment. Later, Lily is forced to purchase scandalous letters written by Bertha Dorset revealing that Selden was her lover. Lily is hurt, but keeps the letters secret.
At a wedding, Lily receives a $5,000 check from Gus Trenor, who claims to have reinvested another $4,000. Later, he invites Lily to the opera, where she also encounters Lawrence Selden and Simon Rosedale.
While Lily is hoping to hear from Lawrence Selden, Simon Rosedale visits, proposing to her as if suggesting a corporate merger. His wealth could free Lily, yet she politely rejects his flattering but cold blooded proposal. Bertha Dorset invites Lily to the Dorsets' yacht for a European cruise. Lily accepts, desperate to escape the whispers and criticism in New York.
In Monte Carlo, Mrs. Carry Fisher meets with Selden, who has arrived from London. They are both worried about Lily, travelling on the Dorset's yacht. Lily and George Dorset converse on deck while a young man reads French poetry to Bertha. That evening, Lily and George look for them in vain. Next morning, George enters Lily's cabin, accusing her of knowing more about Bertha's indiscretions. Lily pleads ignorance of her behavior. But when Bertha returns, Lily confronts her and Bertha shockingly accuses Lily of adultery with George.
Back in New York, Aunt Julia has died, leaving Lily only a fraction of her vast fortune in favour of Cousin Grace. Now homeless and adrift, Lily is invited by Carry Fisher to stay with her and the Gormers for the summer. Carry believes Lily's two possibilities for marriage are George Dorset and Simon Rosedale. George asks Lily for the truth about his wife Bertha's infidelities, but she denies any knowledge. In her growing desperation she approaches Simon Rosedale. He has found out about Bertha's letters and advises Lily to use them against Bertha, arguing that it will restore her social standing. He offers to marry Lily once Bertha is disgraced, but Lily refuses.
Lily starts working for a Mrs. Hatch as her social secretary. Selden tells Lily this hurts her social standing, but she needs the money. They argue and part on bad terms. Lily goes to the pharmacy for Mrs. Hatch's laudanum sleeping medication, and begins taking it herself. After Mrs. Hatch fires Lily, Lily takes up millinery piece work, but her growing depression leads to her being fired for poor work results. Lily visits her cousin Grace for a loan but is rejected.
Lily almost confronts Bertha Dorset with the letters written to Mr. Selden, but finding that the Dorsets have left town, she goes to Lawrence Selden, telling him she knows she lost his love. When Lawrence isn't looking, she throws the letters in his fireplace. Lily goes home and finds her inheritance has at last been delivered. She writes two checks, one for the bank, the other for Gus Trenor, resolving the massive debts, but then takes a fatal dose of the laudanum, drifting off to oblivion in her darkened room. Finding the partially burnt letters in his fireplace and sensing her intentions, Selden rushes to her boarding room. There, at her deathbed, holding her hand, he weeps, declaring his love for her.Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart
Eric Stoltz as Lawrence Selden
Dan Aykroyd as Gus Trenor
Anthony LaPaglia as Sim Rosedale
Laura Linney as Bertha Dorset
Terry Kinney as George Dorset
Eleanor Bron as Mrs. Julia Peniston
Jodhi May as Grace Stepney
Elizabeth McGovern as Mrs. Carry Fisher
Penny Downie as Judy Trenor
Pearce Quigley as Percy Gryce
Lorelei King as Mrs. Hatch
Morag Siller as Mary Lee
Pamela Dwyer as Edith Fisher
Parts of the film were shot at Gosford House in East Lothian, Scotland and at Manderston House in the Scottish Borders.
The House of Mirth premiered at the New York Film Festival on 23 September 2000. Sony Pictures Classics released it in the US on 22 December 2000. There, it grossed $48,770 in its opening weekend and $3 million in total. The worldwide total is $5.1 million.
The House of Mirth has an 81% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, whose critical consensus says, "Despite being a period piece, The House of Mirth's depiction of social cruelty still feels chilling and relevant for today." Metacritic rated it 78/100.British Independent Film Award - Best Actress
Village Voice Film Poll – Best Lead Performance
Nominated—London Film Critics Circle Award for Actress of the Year
Nominated—National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress (2nd place)
Nominated—New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (2nd place)
Nominated—Satellite Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama