Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Age of Innocence Movie Review

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence, has not really received its due praise. Perhaps because at the time it seemed such a departure for the director of quintessential New York stories of Italian Americans, often involved in crime. Now that 17 years have passed and Scorsese has gone on to create a body of work with much broader settings and themes (Kundun, The Aviator, Shutter Island), it’s fair to say there is little unusual about seeing it as very much a Martin Scorsese Picture.

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is one in a long line of Scorsese male protagonists trying to escape from the clutches of a world not of his own choosing. Consider Charlie in Mean Streets coming to terms with his lack of faith; Travis Bickle trapped in a sewer of crime; Jesus of Nazareth wrestling with the forces pushing him; Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island a prisoner of his own psychosis.

Newland is a member of 1870s New York high society. He comes from a family of money and stiff social mores and is surrounded by people who are no different. He is happily engaged to the lovely May Welland (Winona Ryder) and life is moving along exactly as it does under the circumstances until May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), returns from Europe after separating from her philandering husband. She does not stick to the strict codes that New York Society adheres to. She wears the wrong clothes, she says the wrong things (a woman shouldn’t have any opinions at all) and she is marred by rumor of scandal (was she carrying on an affair with her husband’s secretary?). Newland, already willing to cast off the straight jacket of social convention, is swept up by Ellen’s unconventionality. He begins to see May as utterly simple, devoid of opinion and completely boring.

The script by Scorsese and Jay Cocks captures the spirit of Wharton’s novel almost perfectly and is by and large a truly faithful adaptation. The development of Newland, May and Ellen is wonderfully rendered, helped a great deal by the performances, most notably Day-Lewis, who captures so effortlessly the frustration of a man desiring to strike out on his own, but deathly afraid of “What people will say.”

Some of the more minor characters have been pared down to keep the running time to just over two hours. The formidable Larry Lefferts (Richard E. Grant), knowing all the proper rules and modes as well as all the gossip has been trimmed down. That’s unfortunate mostly because it doesn’t afford Grant enough screen time to look good doing what he does best – sneering and making veiled snide remarks. The big and sturdy Mrs. Mingott (Miriam Margolyes) has also had some scenes dropped. And the side plot of Julius Beaufort’s undoing is not given the same focus as in the novel. What’s most remarkable is how well these minor characters are developed in spite of their limited screen time. Much of this is accomplished by the use of a narrator (Joanne Woodward) who fills us in – mostly in the opening 15 minutes – on quite a lot of detail regarding the setting, history and tiny character traits that reveal so much.

Although I think the narration accomplishes a great deal, I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary and distracts from the viewing experience, making the beginning of the film feel more like a book on tape. Scorsese should have trusted himself more as a visual storyteller. In fact, his camera does much of the work that Woodward does for us. He has a way of revealing what seem like the least important aspects of a scene, but which, in this world, say everything about the roles of the people in the room and the customs they adhere to. Take for instance the scenes involving the men retired to the drawing room for brandy and cigars. Scorsese takes the time to show the cutting of the cigars and the pouring of the brandy. These seemingly insignificant details are as much a part of the custom of these meetings as the frank manner they have of speaking about others when not in the presence of their wives.

The art direction and Gabriella Pescucci’s costumes are top notch. There is nary an object or top hat that feels out of place. The film’s only Oscar came for the costume design, but not surprisingly it received several other nominations including one for Elmer Bernstein’s lovely musical score. It has the feel of an old Hollywood score without stomping out every emotion. It’s steady, plaintive without being melancholy, and ever-present without being invasive.

For all the complaining people tend to do about film adaptations not being “as good as the book” (I still don’t even understand what that means), this film provides for me a clear example of a film succeeding where the limitations of printed words on a page couldn’t: The final scene when Newland Archer travels to Paris with his grown son some 25 years after his last encounter with Ellen uses Bernstein’s score combined with a long lonely static shot of Newland walking away from her hotel, choosing to be content with his memories of her, is devastating in a way the book could not be. The scene is a brilliant demonstration of the power of cinema to combine visual images with music, instilling in the audience exactly the emotion the director hopes to achieve. A writer can create images with words, but she can’t include camera movements and a swell of strings.

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