Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XXIII: The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence (1993) ****
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese based on the novel by Edith Wharton.
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis (Newland Archer), Michelle Pfeiffer (Ellen Olenska), Winona Ryder (May Welland), Alexis Smith (Louisa van der Luyden), Geraldine Chaplin (Mrs. Welland), Mary Beth Hurt (Regina Beaufort), Alec McCowen (Sillerton Jackson), Richard E. Grant (Larry Lefferts), Miriam Margolyes (Mrs. Mingott), Robert Sean Leonard (Ted Archer), Siân Phillips (Mrs. Archer), Jonathan Pryce (Rivière), Michael Gough (Henry van der Luyden), Joanne Woodward (Narrator).

On its surface, The Age of Innocence may seem to many observers to be the least Martin Scorsese movie of all of his films. But then again nothing about The Age of Innocence is about what it seems to be on the surface. This is movie about a society that is too “polite” to ever say anything particularly nasty to each other and where no one ever gets violent. Yet, this is still a violent movie – just not in terms of physical violence. These people slit each others throats with the words they say – all of it done with a smile or a knowing wink. There is a line in the Edith Wharton novel, that although it did not make into the narration of the film, could explain what attracted Scorsese to the project. “It occurred to Newland Archer that there was a difference between the type of woman you respected and married, and the type that you enjoyed and pitied”. If this doesn’t sum up a lot of Scorsese movies, I don’t know what would. Although these characters are not Catholic, they might as well be.

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is one of the pillars of New York society in the 1870s. He is engaged to the prim and proper May Welland (Winona Ryder), who comes from a similarly upright and fortuitous family, and everyone agrees they make a wonderful match. Then comes word that May’s cousin, The Countess Oleska (Michelle Pfeiffer) is returning from her years in Europe. She is separated from her husband, a boorish, philandering man, and has no intentions of going back to him. This is a cardinal sin for New York society, who has applied the English code of conduct with even more rigidity than they do in England. However, the Wellands are determined to stand behind the Countess and make her part of New York society once again. Archer, who knew the Countess as a child, agrees and wants to speed up the announcement of his and May’s impending wedding to show that it is not just the Wellands, but the Archers who stand behind the Countess. This, they figure, will be impossible for New York society to refute.

But then a strange thing happens to Archer. When he meets the Countess, he is immediately drawn to her, and it appears, that she is drawn to him. He has lived his life doing what is right, and what is expected of him, but for a while anyway, it appears like he would be willing to give it all up for her. Everyone senses that something is amiss, but of course no one ever says anything about it, except in the most veiled of ways. Because we see almost the entire story of Newland’s point of view, we do not know what everyone is saying behind his back, but you can feel it in every scene in the movie.

Take for instance a sequence when Newland tells May (who is now his wife), that he has to travel to Washington to observe a new patent case going on in front of the Supreme Court. By this time, The Countess has moved to Washington, and the real reason why Newland is going is to see her. But then May’s grandmother has a stroke, and The Countess has to rush back to see her. “Too bad you’re going to miss Ellen”, May tells him “You’ll likely pass each other going the opposite way”. “Didn’t I tell you? I’m not going to Washington. The case was delayed” he tells her. “Funny, I thought I read in the newspaper that it was starting tomorrow” she responds. “While the case isn’t delayed, my going is”. “Oh, I see. How fortunate then that you’ll be here to see Ellen”. Even though May catches Newland in a lie, she doesn’t confront him with it, except in the most passive aggressive way. She knows, or at least suspects at this point, Newland’s true feelings for the Countess, and this is her way of letting Newland know that she knows. The difference between this scene and scenes in previous Scorsese movies – Raging Bull, GoodFellas or Cape Fear for example – about questions of infidelity in a marriage, and the difference is night and day. It is like this every time Newland and May discuss the Countess. May goes on about what a wonderful person Ellen is, and how wonderful it is that Newland has been such a great friend to her, and then takes subtle jabs at her.

The only person who even comes close to suggesting that something inappropriate is going on between Newland and the Countess is May’s grandmother, Mrs. Mingott (Miriam Margoyles), who tells Newlad that he should have been the one to marry her “dear Ellen”, and then asking him why he didn’t. “Well, she wasn’t here to be married for one thing”, he tells her. “Too true” she says with regret. Perhaps she says this only because she is too old to even try and make much of an effort anymore, or perhaps she just wants to let Newland know that he’s not fooling anyone.

The movie is really about how Newland is torn between his desire to do what is expected of him, and doing what he knows will make him happy. There is a moment, before they are married, when May even offers him a way out, and he discusses it with the Countess. “We cannot build our happiness on the misery of others”, she tells him. “That’s not you, and if you did that you would take away everything good about yourself that I love”. So he goes ahead and marries May anyway. Later, when the Countess re-enters his life, he wants to leave again, and this time she seems more amicable about the idea. But by then, May has rescinded his “get out of jail free card”, and pulls a maneuver that seems almost downright cold hearted to keep him. Yet, you can understand why she does this – she has seen has society has treated her cousin Ellen, and if she and Newland were to get divorced, they would treat her the same way. This life is the only things she knows, and so she tries desperately to hang on to it. She is as much as a victim of Newland and Ellen’s love as they are.

For a film all about buried passion, the performances in the movie are astonishingly good, particularly by the three leads. Daniel Day-Lewis has always been one of the best actors of his generation, and his performance here is simply told one of his absolute best. It makes sense that Scorsese cast a British actor in this role, as Day-Lewis brings the type of refinement to the role that was needed. He plays the parlor games with the best of them, but occasionally lets his passion get the best of him. Yet even when he is alone with Ellen, he keeps up the appearance of decorum – he never gets vulgar. Pfeiffer for her part has never been more fragile or beautiful then she is here. Her life has already been destroyed once by her first husband, and now as she tries to pick up the pieces, it is in danger of being destroyed all over again. Ryder, the only cast member nominated for an Oscar, is simply superb, burying all her emotions behind a façade of politeness and decorum. Yet, she allows you to see subtle hints behind her performance as she talks to Newland.

In the end, I think The Age of Innocence actually fits in rather nicely with the rest of Scorsese’s films. After all, many of his characters have been torn about marrying the “right girl”. From J.R. in Who’s That Knocking at My Door, who thinks he can get over the fact that the girl he wants to marry was raped (but is wrong – he will never get past it), to Charlie in Mean Streets, who lets his uncle’s opinion of the girl he loves prevent him from taking things further, to Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, who does indeed marry the wrong girl, to Henry Hill in GoodFellas, who marries a stronger willed woman than most of his gangster friends, all of these characters are undone by falling from the wrong girl. Poor Newland does not even have the advantage that these characters had – they were able to follow their desires down whatever hole they found themselves in. If they ended up miserable and alone, it was entirely their own fault. Newland does not follow his desires because it would not be proper for him to do so – because if he did, he would lose everything else in his life. At the end of the movie – set years after the rest of the film - when both Newland and Ellen are now widowed and free to marry each other if they choose, Newland does not go and see her when he has the chance. His son goes up to see her in her Paris apartment, but Newland decides to stay out on a bench instead. “What should I tell her to explain you’re being late? That you’re old fashioned and insisted on taking the stairs instead of the elevator?” “Just say I’m old fashioned. I’m sure that will suffice” he tells his son. Indeed, Newland Archer is old fashioned. The poor sap.

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