Review/Film: The Age of Innocence; Grand Passions and Good Manners (Published 1993) (2024)



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Review/Film: The Age of Innocence; Grand Passions and Good Manners (Published 1993) (1)

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September 17, 1993


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TAKING "The Age of Innocence," Edith Wharton's sad and elegantly funny novel about New York's highest society in the 1870's, Martin Scorsese has made a gorgeously uncharacteristic Scorsese film. It would be difficult to imagine anything further removed from the director's canon than Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning page-turner, not even "The Last Temptation of Christ."

Yet with a fine cast headed by Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, Mr. Scorsese has made a big, intelligent movie that functions as if it were a window on a world he had just discovered, and about which he can't wait to spread the news.

The Wharton novel is far more than a romantic tale of a love that can never be. It's a deliciously hard-edged satire of the manners and customs of a small, inbred, very privileged circle of people in an era already long past when the book was published in 1920. Mr. Scorsese's outsider's fascination with the rules of this world matches that of Wharton, whose novel is a bittersweet recollection of the world she was born into, and eventually broke away from.

Working from her text in an adaptation written with Jay co*cks, Mr. Scorsese takes an anthropologist's view of the desperate plight of the three central characters. They are Newland Archer (Mr. Day-Lewis), a rich, well-born young lawyer; his most proper fiancee, May Welland (Ms. Ryder), and the worldly Ellen Olenska (Ms. Pfeiffer), May's first cousin, who has recently returned to New York as a countess after leaving her dissolute Polish husband.

Dissolute? The count is described at one point as having a lot of lashes and two interests: women and china. The money he doesn't spend on one, he spends on the other.

Having lived so long abroad, and having abandoned her husband, Ellen is under a cloud, initially regarded as little better than a fallen woman, a pariah, by the old-guard, upper bourgeoisie with whom she grew up. She's welcomed back, reluctantly, only after Newland and May's families pull various power plays, mostly having to do with dinner invitations to the right houses. Yet Ellen really doesn't understand the society that appears to offer her comfort.

She's astonished when the members of her family rise up as one to denounce her intention to divorce the count. Nobody denies that he has treated her rottenly but, as Newland explains, "Our legislation favors divorce, but our customs don't." She is a woman. The publicity could be nasty. Appearance is all. People can behave abominably as long they don't allow it to become public knowledge.

Newland, chosen by the family to persuade Ellen to abandon her divorce, succeeds, but only to fall profoundly in love with her. In the affair that follows (a few short, clandestine meetings in which hands are held and discreet kisses stolen), it is Ellen who remains strong. "I can't love you," she tells him, "unless I give you up." What she is really telling him is that she couldn't love him if he dishonored the code he still believes in.

Poor Newland is split up the middle: he finds peace in the predictable, often hypocritical rituals of society, but he is drawn to a kind of life that accepts spontaneity and acts on feelings without regard to form. It's a life of risk, chance and self-awareness.

Though Newland is utterly sincere, what he refers to as "the rest of the world" is represented not by the lower classes or even by the artists and writers he admires, but by the beautiful, sad, wise, emotionally battered Ellen. His own world is embodied by the pretty, well-trained, steadfast May. Newland adores her even as he realizes that she's a woman completely without curiosity. On their honeymoon, he sees the futility of his dream of creating a soul mate in her: "There's no point in liberating someone who doesn't realize she is not free."

Newland's struggle to liberate himself is carried out in a series of sometimes hilariously genteel confrontations at the opera, at perfectly served dinner parties (where the food is sometimes inedible), at weekends in the country and during summer vacations in Newport. In the course of these, he stumbles on one amazing fact: though the proper May is an empty vessel, she knows, as if by instinct, how to play the desperate game she never seems to be aware is taking place.

Ms. Ryder is wonderful as this sweet young thing who's hard as nails, as much out of ignorance as of self-interest. Ms. Pfeiffer is lovely, the visual focal point of the film, but also much more. With her soft voice, her reserve and her quickness of mind, her Ellen has emotional weight. She's the film's heart and conscience.

Mr. Day-Lewis has a good, upper-class American accent, but at first seems more of an English dandy than a well-bred American with an inquiring mind. The performance seems to improve as the film goes along. He's a terrifically accomplished actor, but the screenplay does him a disservice. The soundtrack narrator (Joanne Woodward), who is presumably Edith Wharton, spells out so many of his thoughts, amid her own observations, that he often appears to be acting out instead of doing for himself.

The good thing about the screenplay is that it manages to preserve so much of the original text, largely through the use of the narrator, not always a graceful device. The Wharton observations are sometimes so truncated that I'm not sure they'll be understood by someone who hasn't read the novel.

Mr. Scorsese and Mr. co*cks have got almost everything of any importance in the novel onto the screen, but at a cost. Though it comes as something of a surprise to realize it today, Wharton was not only ferociously witty and morally committed, she was also a great storyteller. The novel's breathless pace is gone, sometimes because the narrator seems to be butting in as often as she is clarifying things. Mr. Scorsese could have used Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who, in her screenplays for Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, has demonstrated an uncanny ability to find the tone as well as the voice of each novel she has adapted.

The film is also slowed down, but less awkwardly, by its fascination with the same sort of period details Wharton describes so lovingly in the novel: the place-settings at dinner parties, the second-rate paintings so proudly displayed by New York's social elite, their furniture, their architecture and such. This is rich stuff, but to some it will seem just set decoration.

As if to offset this somewhat static preoccupation with inventories, Mr. Scorsese and Michael Ballhaus, the cinematographer, employ a camera style of sometimes dizzy, sweeping, lyrical romanticism. It works beautifully. Less successful is the way dialogue from a new scene is introduced before the old scene is quite through.It seems a pushy ploy to keep things moving right along. In these form-conscious circ*mstances, it's not in the best of taste.

The excellent supporting cast, largely English, includes Michael Gough, Richard E. Grant, Alec McCowen, Jonathan Pryce, Stuart Wilson and, as May's formidably autocratic and overweight grandmother, Miriam Margolyes, an actress who recalls Laura Hope Crews (Aunt Pittypat in "Gone With the Wind"), but with a spine of steel. Among the Americans are Alexis Smith and Robert Sean Leonard.

Don't be put off by the film's rocky reception at the recent Venice Film Festival, where, it seems, only the Communist daily, Il Manifesto, hailed it, as a "triumph," but as an expose of capitalist decadence (not a quote to sell many tickets on either side of the Atlantic). "The Age of Innocence" isn't perfect, but it's a robust gamble that pays off.

The film is the work of one of America's handful of master craftsmen, a director whose decisions command attention and haunt the imagination, even when they don't entirely succeed.

"The Age of Innocence" has been rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It includes nothing of an overtly sexual, violent or vulgar nature, but the subject matter will be over the heads of young children. The Age of Innocence Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Jay co*cks and Mr. Scorsese, based on the novel by Edith Wharton; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Dante Ferretti; produced by Barbara De Fina; released by Columbia. Running time: 133 minutes. This film is rated PG. Newland Archer . . . Daniel Day-Lewis Ellen Olenska . . . Michelle Pfeiffer May Welland . . . Winona Ryder Larry Lefferts . . . Richard E. Grant Sillerton Jackson . . . Alec McCowen Mrs. Welland . . . Geraldine Chaplin Regina Beaufort . . . Mary Beth Hurt Julius Beaufort . . . Stuart Wilson Mrs. Mingott . . . Miriam Margolyes Henry van der Luyden . . . Michael Gough Louisa van der Luyden . . . Alexis Smith Riviere . . . Jonathan Pryce Ted Archer . . . Robert Sean Leonard

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As a passionate film enthusiast with a deep understanding of cinema history, I can confidently assert my expertise in analyzing and interpreting films across various genres and periods. My extensive knowledge encompasses the work of renowned directors, the evolution of cinematic techniques, and the integration of literature into film adaptations. Now, let's delve into the concepts used in the provided article discussing Martin Scorsese's film "The Age of Innocence," which is an adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel:

  1. Film Direction and Style:

    • The article acknowledges Martin Scorsese's atypical departure from his usual gritty and intense style to create a film that reflects the genteel world of 1870s New York high society. This demonstrates Scorsese's versatility as a director, showcasing his ability to adapt to diverse genres and storytelling approaches.
  2. Literary Adaptation:

    • The article explores the challenges and successes of adapting Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Age of Innocence" into a film. This process involves translating Wharton's rich prose and intricate narrative into a visual medium. The article suggests that the screenplay, written by Jay co*cks and Martin Scorsese, successfully preserves much of the original text, but not without some compromises.
  3. Character Analysis:

    • The article provides insights into the main characters: Newland Archer (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), May Welland (played by Winona Ryder), and Ellen Olenska (played by Michelle Pfeiffer). It discusses their social roles, relationships, and internal struggles. The analysis emphasizes the complexity of these characters and their interactions within the rigid social norms of the time.
  4. Social Commentary:

    • The narrative of "The Age of Innocence" serves as a social commentary on the manners and customs of the upper echelons of society in the 1870s. Both Edith Wharton and Martin Scorsese are depicted as keen observers, critiquing the privileged and insular world portrayed in the story.
  5. Cinematography and Period Details:

    • The article mentions the cinematography by Michael Ballhaus and its use of a romantic and sweeping style. It also notes the film's attention to period details, such as the settings of dinner parties, artwork, furniture, and architecture. These details are considered both enriching and, to some extent, potentially perceived as mere set decoration.
  6. Soundtrack and Narration:

    • Elmer Bernstein's musical score for the film is acknowledged, and the article comments on the use of a narrator (voiced by Joanne Woodward) to convey thoughts and observations. The effectiveness of this narrative device is discussed, with some reservations about its impact on the viewer's experience.
  7. Critical Reception:

    • The article briefly mentions the film's reception at the Venice Film Festival and highlights its mixed reviews. Despite some criticisms, the article contends that "The Age of Innocence" is a robust gamble that pays off, praising Scorsese as one of America's master craftsmen.

By dissecting these concepts, we gain a comprehensive understanding of the film, its production elements, and its reception within the context of both cinematic and literary analysis.

Review/Film: The Age of Innocence; Grand Passions and Good Manners (Published 1993) (2024)
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