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TNR Film Classics: ‘The Age of Innocence’ (October 18, 1993)

The basic trouble with Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (Columbia) is Edith Wharton’s novel. Looking back fifty years in 1920, Wharton conceived a tale of love versus honor set in New York high society of that past era, and she embodied it in a full-dress novel. But her material would have served only as a short story, at most a novella, for Tolstoy or Chekhov. What helps to sustain Wharton’s more extended treatment is the attractive prose in which she wraps her narrative. Her writing has so much wit and perception, such a taking blend of satire-cum-nostalgia, that the book holds us though the story is slender. (I still feel the ending shortchanges us. I want to know what Ellen Olenska said to Newland Archer’s son in her Paris apartment, what the youth thought when she ordered the shutters closed against his father, how he later reported the meeting to his father.) In the film, without its garment of text, the denuded story is thin.

It’s worse than that—because the film tries to be the novel. Attempting to reproduce the text’s quality, very nearly page for page, Scorsese even uses considerable prose excerpts on the soundtrack (read flatly by Joanne Woodward). He and his co-adapter, Jay Cocks, have been zealously faithful to the original, but, ironically, all that this fidelity does is make the picture seem slow. Film can’t cloak, can’t justify, as Wharton’s prose does, the linearity of the story.

It’s even worse—because (to close the novel’s trap) Scorsese and Cocks had no choice: the picture has to run as long as it does. The adapters understood that there was absolutely no point in the enterprise if the decorum of drawing room and dining room, the rustle of silk and the spruceness of boutonnières were slighted. Etiquette, at its most stately, is the theater of this drama. Among some critics, there was advance worry about this; could Scorsese, the director from Little Italy, cope with the Four Hundred? That worry always seemed unnecessary to me. A director of his gifts, flanked with brigades of various period experts, aided mightily by the camera of Michael Ballhaus, would delight in the nooks and crannies of the period—and he does. But it’s a bitter triumph. He had to include all the glitter and elegance; yet it doesn’t sustain the story as Wharton’s writing does.

Not for lack of cinematic imagination. Scorsese is one of the two or three best American directors now at work, and his talent is quickly evident in the way the camera searches out every wisp of possible action in a scene, the way that characters move up to and past the camera to suggest that the theater we are sitting in is part of the room on screen, the way the camera often nestles in to people as if to hear secrets. In a moment that  might have been static for another director, when Newland Archer gets an important telegram from his fiancée May Welland, Scorsese has May speak it in front of an immense bank of flowers as the camera comes close, charging the moment with perfume and intimacy.

When twenty-six years elapse, after Ellen takes herself out of Newland Archer’s life and returns to Europe, a time-lapse that Wharton can handle with a simple chapter break, Scorsese shuns the banality of fade-out on the young Archer and fade-in on the middle-aged man. He concentrates on Archer’s library "in which most of the real things of his life had happened." He circles the room slowly, showing us moments in the Archer family chronicle during those years.

And music! The most Scorsesean touch in Wharton’s book is that it begins at the opera. (Remember Mascagni under the opening of Raging Bull.) Red meat to Scorsese, as it was to Visconti in Senso. Onward from this opening, Scorsese uses lively music to spank sequences into life—often, at balls and parties, with music that comes from within the scene or else with Elmer Bernstein’s felicitous score.

But—a heavy but—Scorsese has made serious mistakes with his principal actors. The biggest disappointment is in the crucial part, Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer. Archer is the protagonist,  happily affianced to May Welland, who then falls in love with the newly arrived Ellen Olenska. The central drama is his. (Ellen’s agon is no less, but she isn’t placed at the center.) On the basis of Day-Lewis’s past work, forceful and graphic in A Room With a View, My Beautiful Laundrette and My Left Foot, he seemed very likely to inhabit the role, to vitalize it. He doesn’t. He merely moves through it. There’s never a spark to sting us: he leaves us cold, observant.

Perhaps Scorsese was counting on his personality to grip us, a resident power such as Fredric March or James Mason had. Day-Lewis doesn’t have it. He needed to act (which Mason or March would have done, too!), but he doesn’t. He skates through. It’s surprising that Scorsese didn’t remedy this.

Michelle Pfeiffer is a somewhat more complicated case. As Ellen Olenska, the American who returns to New York after a broken European marriage, Pfeiffer tries hard but fails. It’s sad. She is living as intelligent a life as is possible for an American film star these days: seeking variety, taking chances, addressing every role with all the resources she can command. She just doesn’t command enough—in fire or depth or resonance. The result in film after film is a somewhat washed-out version of the woman she is playing, like a painting that has faded. Her Ellen is perceptible but pallid. What helps Pieiffer most is the fact that though she is exceptionally pretty, she patently doesn’t rely on her prettiness: she wants to act. But, with her Ellen, though we know what she means from moment to moment, we simply don’t feel it.

Winona Ryder is disastrously miscast as May Welland, Archer’s utterly conventional fiancée and eventual wife who turns out to have been more perceptive than her husband knew. Ryder is wrong, first, physically. Wharton describes May as being “tall, rotund-bosomed and willowy” with a “goddesslike-build,” and comments frequently on her features. Clearly Wharton means May’s physical being to help explain why Archerwanted her. Here Archer has chosen a moderately pleasant, quite unremarkable girl. As for Ryder’s acting, the one smile for me in this film—which is and must be socially hyperconscious—was when Ryder remarks to Archer that a man she has just met seems common. To put it gently, her social superiority is unconvincing.

Robert Sean Leonard, who trivialized Claudio in the recent Much Ado About Nothing, has less chance here to do damage in the small role of Archer’s son. But most of the supporting actors in the lustrous New York social parade are neatly cast, and two of them do the best acting in the film. Alec McCowen, as Sillerton Jackson, the aging socialite, has the gravity of a man to whom protocol is his reason for being. Miriam Margolyes, as the obese and ultra-rich Mrs. Mingott, curls the surrounding air with dry disdain and hierarchical rigor.

The Age of Innocence was dramatized on Broadway in 1928 and was filmed in Hollywood in 1924 and 1934. I don’t know any of those versions, and I wonder how (which means I doubt that) they avoided the snare that Wharton unwittingly set for her adapters, the snare that, for all his gifts, caught Scorsese.