The Age of Innocence (1993); directed by Martin Scorsese; produced by Barbara de Fina and Bruce Pustin; screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese; filmed by Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Elmer Bernstein; distributed by Columbia Pictures; Awards: Won Academy Award for Best Costume Design (Gabriella Pescucci); nominated for Best Art/Set Decoration (Dante Ferretti, Robert J. Franco); Best Original Score; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Supporting Actress (Winona Ryder); for a full list of awards and nominations, go here.
First of all, the film is such a departure for Scorsese it might almost be considered laughable. The fact that Marty delivers the goods is one reason I think so highly of this film. His grasp of the material is superb and I say that, still, with a bit of surprise. Going in, I’m sure I was skeptical about Scorsese doing a literary film, much less a period film set in the 1870s. And I’ll grant that the voice-over narration almost spoils it, at times, particularly in the early going. But once one gets past those hurdles—one’s doubt and a few stilted phrases here and there, and, perhaps, the ostentatious rendering of all the ostentation on view—one should be receptive to what the film accomplishes.
As “idea” the film has a lot going for it because the novel it’s based on does. I think of Edith Wharton, the author of The Age of Innocence, as a poor person’s Henry James, and what that means in practice is that her books are much more filmable than his are. She relies upon some of the same strengths—a telling perception of the reality behind the façade of social customs—but, unlike James, there aren’t as many facets to the façade, so to speak. Here we have the tale of a man, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), member of the upper-crust elite of old New York, who convinces himself he’s in love with a woman, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), a married woman in flight from her husband, a Polish count and libertine. Ellen excites Archer in ways his staid and very proper fiancee May Welland (Winona Ryder), a cousin of Ellen’s, can’t. The art of both film and novel is in explicating the levels of social grace Archer is required to navigate, but it would all be dull as hell without a grasp of Archer. Day-Lewis conveys so much about this character—both the knowing and not-knowing so crucial to his missteps in fitful pursuit of what might be a major love affair, if only he could experience it. That dancing round the flame of a true passion, while living behind a façade of detached and reassuring sophistication, is the driving thrust of the film, and Scorsese never loses his grip on the subtleties of Archer’s situation: his jealousy, his fear, his delusions, his self-confidence, his moments out of his depth. The idea is that, within a society so structured, the threat of spontaneous action will be checked and thwarted, as if by one will. The ironies abound because Archer, deep down, shares that will, and, however much he might like to believe otherwise, so does his fantasy lover, Ellen.
The pleasures of the film are many, to me, not least because Scorsese is having fun with it. Quick cuts, circular frames, explosions of color, shots of impressive dishes—in general, a rapturous romp through sets and costumes and the wonderful aura of the period. Newland and May in a carriage in Paris, riding together is a series of Whistlerian images; a clip of a street full of men gripping their hats in a strong wind, in slow motion, while Enya rhapsodizes “I Dreamt I Dwellt in Marble Halls” on the soundtrack; the squaring off between Archer and the shady but influential man-about-town, Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson), both in differing styles of cat-and-mouse pursuit of the elusive Ellen. Michelle Pfeiffer, who does a passable cultured accent without losing her winsome Americanness, surprises as well. Her scenes in private with Archer are best, as if the obvious reality of Day-Lewis’ Archer demands a deft portrayal from her. And in many ways her part is more difficult, but more on that in a moment. Winona Ryder, who in this period could make movies she was silly in (like the role of Mina in Francis Coppola’s campy Dracula), is spot on here, full of fey charm and, in the latter scenes of the film, a steely softness that is striking to watch. Archer, the poor sap, doesn’t stand a chance against her feminine wiles. Her role is key because a vapid woman couldn’t be Archer’s intended, and a woman less definite about the world she’s a part of would probably not go through with the marriage. Then there’s Miriam Margolyes as Granny Mingott, the matriarch Wharton likens to a “dowager empress.” She’s clever and observant, but also ornery in her willingness to sport with the possibilities that Archer, never quite equal to his fantasy’s reality, balks at.
My viewing of the film, from the time of its release to the present, has undergone some changes. My initial fascination with it, I’m sure, had much to do with the fact that I was in graduate school in Princeton at the time and thus in the midst of my own encounter with the kind of Old World customs that the Ivy League to some extent still thrives on. The sense of tradition and sophistication, but also of social façade and levels of dissimulation, were a part of my life as they had never been before. Even more to the point, my own emotional life at the time, in my final fall semester there, felt quite as volatile as Archer’s, and like him, I knew I had very good reasons to forgo a path of desire I could glimpse but not follow. As time went on, my sense of his renunciation became more poignant and then more ironic—from feeling myself stabbed by his failure to seize the moment, I found myself laughing at the skill with which he is manipulated.
And I still watch the film without making my mind up fully about Madame Olenska. She could be seen as the villain of the piece, if one believes she humors Archer and is not sincere; she, for vanity or sport, makes of him an emotional toy, and I think Pfeiffer’s coolness makes that reading possible. But there are moments when she is clearly moved and is making an effort to steer him toward her. It’s that effort on her part that I watch with a kind of knowing familiarity, fully trusting in how lovely and lively Pfeiffer can be for him, but always, it seems, with an eye to her effect on him. Ellen is a complex woman, taking her cues from those around her and bent upon her own emotional survival, and Archer, drawn in and intoxicated by her, but also looking askance at how she dallies with Beaufort, is, in the end, simply too “innocent” to possess her. The moves by which she is put beyond his reach, in the name of his wife and her pregnancy, require her participation, a level of deliberate avoidance that seems to say “you are meant for May, not for me.” That ability to be, at last, free—in a way that Archer never can be—and free of Archer (as, obviously, he can’t be either) is what makes her the victor, and far from a poignant “ghost” (as we’re told she is at one point). And so there’s simply no looking her in the face in the end, and I’m proud of Scorsese and Day Lewis for delivering the ending with a mature sense of a mature man’s self-respect.
We end saddled with Archer’s “old-fashioned” sense of decorum, and it is an old-fashioned ending in not giving the viewer something a bit gushier, in letting, like some of the old Hollywood films do, the main character keep his dignity and not give-in to some fantasy of how to make it all OK. You can’t conquer time, not even in film, and Scorsese knows that, and, for Archer, you can’t overcome regret by pretending it died or never was. I’m sure there are audiences disappointed by that note of regret, but I also have to say that, though I always feel I’m with Archer at the end, what I feel does veer among several emotions. It’s a great example of a film that I find matches my own mood in a satisfying way. In a sense, I’m never finished watching it, and perhaps won’t be so long as I find something more than nostalgia in recalling my own “age of innocence.”
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