I actually saw The Age of Innocence a while back, but was so captivated by the tale that I just had to read Edith Wharton’s novel. 303 pages, a couple more viewings and a few tears later, here I am, ready to write a great review. (I guess that’s the average cinephile for you!) As the title suggests, I will be exploring how Scorsese effectively brings 1870s New York to life, and how the medium of film is fantastically successful in enhancing the original story.
The movie opens with a scene at the opera (very aptly, Gounod’s Faust is being performed). It is here that we are introduced to our hero, Newland Archer, and his pleasant fiancée, the young May Welland. During the opera, we also meet May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, recently arrived from Europe. From the incessant chatter of the gentlemen present, we discover that Ellen is fleeing from a miserable marriage and seeks refuge among her family and friends. Already, we have been flung deep into Wharton’s world: the intricate web of upper class New York. The Countess is shunned by ‘respectable’ society though, and only Newland shows her kindness and sympathy. This affection, an almost foolish fascination that is mutual between the two, ultimately blossoms into a forbidden and consuming love.
One of the main reasons why The Age of Innocence succeeds is its magnificent cast. As Archer, Daniel Day-Lewis gives a wonderfully understated performance. Whether it be a flick of the wrist or a pensive look in his eyes, Day-Lewis radiates a great subtlety that is central to the character of Newland Archer and the New York in which he lived. For me, it is Michelle Pfeiffer that really shines in the film. After watching her performance, I wondered if it was the Countess who was the most innocent of them all. Ellen arrives in America filled with such new-found hope and happiness. It is her innocence about this unfamiliar world that makes the story so tragic; bit by bit, the wondrous façade of coming home collapses around her.
Perhaps it is Winona Ryder’s May Welland though, that is the most interesting. As the film progresses, we begin to realise that May is not as vapid as we all imagine her to be. Playing by the rules of her society with unbelievable ease, her manipulative ways are intriguing, even laudable in a sense. It is the dynamic of these central characters, as well as the many supporting players, that make the movie surreal, and yet so accessible to modern audiences.
The care with which The Age of Innocence has been made cannot be mistaken. Scorsese pays such attention to every detail; in fact, he actually makes us do the same. He spotlights on Ellen and Newland during a play, highlighting the fact that the two are almost imprisoned in their stifling society (this sense of atmosphere is also magnified by the brilliant set and costume design). Similarly, Scorsese also plays with the speed of the action; making time go faster, slowing it down. He is defying convention, just like our heroes try to do in the film. Through the perfect mix of cinematic technique and tragic music, the simmering subtext of the story becomes evident, maybe even more so than the original novel.
However, Martin Scorsese’s incredible faithfulness to the novel is also a hindrance at times. Approximately 95% of all the lines are lifted straight out of the original text. While this certainly makes for very memorable and eloquent dialogue, the fact remains that the what the characters say sometimes crosses over that hazy boundary into spoken prose. I guess it’s how you would imagine a Scott Fitzgerald screenplay would read: beautiful, but not quite natural. Then again, I suppose the whole movie is meant to convey the unnaturalness of upper-class New York.
I’d like to finish by writing about my two favourite scenes from the movie. The first begins with Newland walking down to the shoreline, trying to find Ellen. He sees her, standing at the end of the pier, just in the distance. It is then that Archer makes a childish promise to himself: if she did not turn to him by the time the little boat crossed the lighthouse, he would not go to her. She does not turn. Filmed in the brilliant setting sun, this scene is like a magnificent painting more than anything else, representing all that could have been. During the final moments of the movie, Newland is given the choice of seeing Ellen after many years away from her. He decides against it, choosing to keep his beautiful fairytale alive. As the doorway to the Countess is closed to him, most likely for good, we return again to that fateful day at the shore. This time though, Ellen turns to him, and smiles.