Directed by Martin Scorsese Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alexis Smith, Geraldine Chaplin, Mary Beth Hurt, Joanne Woodward Review by Virginia De Witt
In 1870s New York, a wealthy upper class lawyer, Newland Archer, becomes engaged to young May Welland, the daughter of another socially prominent family. At the same time, May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, has arrived from Europe, in an attempt to escape a disastrous marriage to a Polish aristocrat. Newland agrees to advise the Countess on legal matters involving her possible divorce, which is frowned on in New York society, and gradually falls in love with her. He marries May regardless of his feelings for the Countess, but can’t let go of his attachment to her, and thus finds himself under increasing suspicion within his social circle.
When Martin Scorsese decided to film Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, many people were surprised by his choice of material. This sedate literary adaptation was not something anyone expected from the director who brought us all those fascinating stories of urban alienation and violence. And yet, in Edith Wharton’s telling of this tale of lost love and missed opportunity, there is underneath the well-mannered surface of New York society a cruel imperative to submit to its tribal customs regarding public behavior or suffer permanent banishment. In other words, the upper class had its own polite, bloodless version of whacking someone who got out of line. Scorsese obviously responds to this undercurrent of tribal retribution, as much, if not more, than to the love story which sets it in motion.
It is a visually beautiful and carefully thought out adaptation of Wharton’s book. Great care has gone into every detail of dress, language, physical deportment and design. It is a joy to behold. Martin Scorsese has to be the most visually gifted of all contemporary directors. His work at times can be a form of visual poetry. In “The Age of Innocence” his evocative shots of Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), are memorable for conveying both her social isolation and loneliness as well as her exotic otherness, at least to the conventional eyes of Newland (Daniel Day-Lewis). We see her through his gaze continually and this is faithful to the book, where neither May nor Ellen really have their own voices but are heard continually through Newland’s perceptions of them. Scorsese succeeds in framing the object of Newland’s desire so that we too see, not just her beauty, but her poignant situation, whether she is shown hauntingly in partial illumination by a fireside or in the film’s elegiac conclusion where Newland imagines one final glance from her.
Scorsese, amongst his other filmmaking gifts, is a brilliant documentarian. The meticulous presentation and serving of meals in this film is one example of his documentary passion. For his audience, it is worthwhile to see and understand the orderliness, the discipline and ritual that these people demanded in even the smallest of pleasures. There is one scene particularly, between Newland and his law partner at dinner, where they are discussing Ellen’s fate while the meat is being carved. The dinner ritual becomes a potent visual metaphor for what is being done to Ellen. She is being dissected and carved up as much as the meat on the plate. However, there are many other instances where it simply seems that Scorsese has allowed his fascination with this bygone social world and, particularly with having its rites described in voice over, to overcome the drama.
This brings up the issue of Joanne Woodward’s narration. She does it very well, but I’m one of those people for whom the elaborate descriptions of what is happening onscreen interrupt the dramatic flow of the movie. At times it seems as though Scorsese is so reverent toward Edith Wharton’s masterpiece that he lapses into making an illustrated reading of the book, rather than risk deviating an iota from Wharton, which would mean re-imagining some scenes or taking license with some of her dialogue. For instance, there is a telling moment when, at a formal gathering, the Countess rises from her seat next to one man and crosses the room alone to sit next to Newland. To modern eyes there could be nothing controversial about this action, but to the sensibilities of 1870s New York it was unforgivably aggressive on her part. Ladies just did not leave one man to go and talk to another one in a public gathering. Scorsese has Joanne Woodward reading out Wharton’s prose over an image of Michelle Pfeiffer completing the action. I always long to see the scene truly dramatized, to be drawn into the action so that we feel what it was like in that room. What were the reactions of the men, and the other women, present to the Countess’ bold independence? We never see it, much less feel it.
Similarly, at the opera ball which helps to open the movie, and thereby introduce us to this unfamiliar social world, instead of using voice over to describe each character in this society and the parts they play, why not let us hear the person, see them interact with the others, and so draw us further into their world? There is a distancing quality to the excessive narration which makes us feel we are being taught about these characters rather than becoming involved or identifying with them.
Despite the annoying intrusion of the narration, the actors still manage to bring this story to life. Daniel Day-Lewis is no stranger to period pieces and he seems perfectly at ease in the elegant skin of Newland Archer. He gives a carefully controlled performance as a man who knows that whatever his deeper impulses might be, he must work constantly to contain them within himself. Michelle Pfeiffer, as the Countess Olenska, brings an honest emotion and intelligence to the part and has a pre-Raphaelite beauty appropriate to the period. Winona Ryder, as May Welland, is very good. She handles convincingly the gradual shift in May from her initial naive trust in Newland to a growing insight into his desires, which will help her ultimately to develop a steely spine hiding just beneath a still sweet exterior. The three principals are surrounded by a stellar cast of character actors who are all excellent, particularly Miriam Margolyes, vivid and amusing, as the elderly social lioness Mrs. Mingott.
In addition to the talents of the cast, and Scorsese’s sure hand in direction, the film has a beautiful score by Elmer Bernstein. As well, Michael Ballhaus, Scorsese’s longtime cinematographer, brilliantly helps to recreate this vanished world.
Despite the distancing factor of the narration and what, to some who are used to Scorsese’s more excitingly paced contemporary films, will seem to be too slow a pace here, “The Age of Innocence” rewards repeat viewings. The ending has real emotional weight which only grows on the viewer over time. It is a quiet, beautifully thoughtful film which leaves a lingering impression long after it is over.
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The Age of Innocence