By Roderick Heath
Martin Scorsese finally arrived as a Hollywood force with the multiple Oscar nominations of Goodfellas (1990) and the big box office of Cape Fear (1991). The latter film, a remake of a 1963 J. Lee Thompson thriller (from a novel by John D. MacDonald), stands as probably Scorsese’s worst movie; the original film’s poised, subversive evil was lost in an exercise in flashy style. Sold as being “more adult,” the remake actually diluted the charge by turning Robert Mitchum’s chilly, reptilian Max Cady into Robert De Niro’s ranting, hammy psycho; airbrushing the threatened pedophilic rape of the family’s daughter by making her a goofily rebellious teen; and throwing out believability around the time De Niro straps himself to the underside of an SUV.
Scorsese made the commercial Cape Fear for Universal as thanks for funding The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Goodfellas. After discharging this obligation, he set out to adapt a novel his friend, the writer and critic Jay Cocks, had given him to read in 1980, claiming it was bound to become his “romantic” piece. The novel was the 1920 Pulitzer Prize winner The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. In the tradition of tightly wrought symbolist studies shared by Henry James, the book is a tale of late 19th century social mores and their corrosive effects on personal happiness.
Scorsese and Cocks cowrote the screenplay, turning down an offer from Gore Vidal, who begged Scorsese to be allowed to write it to keep the adaptation from being screwed up. The early ’90s saw a glut of spit-shine literary adaptations, typified by Ismail Merchant/James Ivory films such as Howards End (1992), as a kind of boutique genre of fin de siècle nostalgia for upscale cinema goers. The Age of Innocence was lumped amongst them, suspect Oscar bait for Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, and possibly for Scorsese himself. I hadn’t even watched it in more than a decade. Returning to the film, it rises resplendent out of its period with a lucid, lustrous beauty.
At first glance, it seems as much of a departure for Scorsese as any possible—from wise guys and psycho taxi drivers to the genteel requirements of the period drama. But Scorsese the anthropologist, responsible for the deftly articulated social studies of his great films, was simply taking his fascination with the building blocks of American life about a half-century further back than he had gone before. Scorsese also may have been trying to channel some of the enthusiasm he had for the long-planned project Gangs of New York (2002), announced after New York, New York (1977) but perpetually backburnered. The Age of Innocence is about what goes on at the end of Manhattan Island furthest from Five Points. One can spy in its genes the spirit of films beloved by Scorsese, like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) and Senso (1954), particularly in the opening sequence (Scorsese’s analysis of Senso in Mio Viaggio in Italia  reveals just how much). All provide elegant examples of how to stage the intricate, restrained, fetishistic character of period passions.
Joanne Woodward narrates Wharton’s prose. The tough, ruggedly democratic, idealistic, rebellious mood of the Civil War era has been comfortably anesthetized; the Gilded Era is in full swing. Upscale New York comfortably replicates European social forms with a strict, uptight insistence that betrays its provincialism. It’s a more refined, studious, curiously more intense world than the one we live in; small changes and challenges generate enormous ripples.
Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), as his name implies, is a man of the New World—vigorous, talented, yearning, inquisitive, morally and intellectually progressive in private, largely conformist in public. We meet him, a young lawyer with impeccable status, at the opera in the company of Sillerton Jackson (Alec McCowen) and Larry Lefferts (Richard E. Grant), two men who fancy themselves weather vanes for the minutiae of form and content in New York society. Newland has just become engaged to May Welland (Ryder), who is present at the performance in another box with her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) and her cousin Ellen, the Countess Olenska (Pfeiffer).
Ellen has just returned to New York, a city she barely knows because her parents had been itinerant bohemians in Europe, where she eventually fell into a nightmarish marriage to a libertine Polish aristocrat. Her return, sans husband, sparks rumors that she had been scandalously shacked up in Switzerland for a time with his secretary. Immediately taken with her, Newland takes up her cause. After the performance comes one of the major social events of the year, the Opera Ball. Its hostess is another relative of the Wellands, Regina Beaufort (Mary Beth Hurt), who married the intransigent, rakish broker Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson) in a precarious balance of old name and new money. Ellen’s presence is bound to create a stir; Newland counteracts this by announcing his and May’s engagement.
Ellen is welcomed happily by her family’s matriarch, the bedridden Mrs. Mingott (Miriam Margolyes), but her attempts to present Ellen fail miserably. Newland successfully argues to the last court of appeal for cases like this—the Van der Luydens (Michael Gough and Alexis Smith), mandarins of this scene. They invite Ellen to a dinner they give for a cousin of theirs who is a duke. “When the Van der Luydens chose, they knew how to give a lesson,” the narrator wryly notes. Newland argues with Jackson over the rights of a woman to be extended the same privileges as men. If Julius Beaufort can have his scattered mistresses without being bothered, why should Ellen be ostracized if the story of her and the secretary is true?
Newland soon finds himself entrusted with the sticky chore of advising Ellen on the risks of trying to obtain a divorce from her husband—virtual social suicide. Ellen is a fine, strong, but threatened woman, made nervously fluttery by her lack of sureness of the world around her; it’s to her absolute surprise that democratic America is more repressive than Old Europe. “Why did Columbus bother discovering a new world if he intended it should just be a version of the old?” she jokingly, but pertinently questions. This mixture of forthright character and wounded charm entirely intoxicates Newland. He finds himself doubly frustrated by the year-long engagement he’s faced with by May. On observing that Julius Beaufort is aggressively courting Ellen to be his mistress, Newland urgently urges Ellen to confide the truth of her life to him, fondly imaging her embracing him from behind, and becomes angered when Julius, like he has done, follows her to a country retreat on a Van der Luyden country property. When Newland finally confesses his torturous ardor, he finishes up kissing her feet as Ellen strokes his hair. But the narrow window where they might have done something about it closes when May tells him that she’s argued successfully for their marriage to be brought forward.
“The taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth,” the narrator explains as Newland struggles against the chafing harness his lot puts him in and the burning promise of Ellen’s passion. His business and his private life demand attention to propriety. When Beaufort gets into trouble with his business, he and his wife are brutally dismissed by the society that noted and kept a ledger on his transgressions even as it trusted him with their money. Newland’s continued healthy existence in his rarefied sphere demands adherence to forms he despises. Day-Lewis was, at the time, the most electric actor in Hollywood, and he’s at the height of his art here in a performance that is marvelously contoured with fires of feeling that flare and smolder, particularly in a moment when he spitefully remarks to Jackson, “If everyone had rather she be Beaufort’s mistress rather than some decent man’s wife, you’ve all gone about it perfectly!”
May hardly seems his equal; Newland feels everything seems to conspire to match men and women of intelligence and energy with dullards and cowards to provide a kind of natural friction. Yet May is not dumb, or wrong, or anything less than a charming young woman; it’s just that there’s no doubt in her about the appropriate shape of the world. Unlike himself and Ellen, she is no misfit or rebel; on the contrary, her psyche fits exactly with her prescribed function. Half-consciously, she resists, corrects, manipulates, and controls. May possesses a covert, cunning nature that manifests itself in minute insinuations with an obeisant, girlish anguish, such as when she discourages Newland from inviting an interesting but “common” French acquaintance, Rivière (Jonathan Pryce) to dinner on their tour of the continent on their honeymoon. Newland recognizes that, far from being someone he can enable to become an expansive-minded soul like himself, May will slowly, dully process him to a fretful scion.
Newland is so intoxicated and sensitive in this straitened epoch that the smallest moments become laced with sensual possibilities, as when he thinks he’s found Ellen’s parasol, sniffing the handle for a trace of perfume (it proves to be another girl’s). Kissing her gloved hand is the most physical and powerful moment he has with her. The first time he sees her after returning from Europe, Ellen stands at the end of a dock, staring out to sea in a gold-bathed afternoon. Sent to fetch her, he instead vows only to go to her if she turns around by the time a sailboat passes a neighboring lighthouse; she doesn’t, and he leaves her, but later goes to her anyway, and discovers she was purposely avoiding him that day. The pair edge closer to a proper affair. Ellen admits cryptically that she knows what the far side of the invisible barrier they dance on looks like, that land of freedom and rebellion, a harsh, scary realm that is “no place for us.” Rivière turns up, casually recognizing Newland as he visits Ellen at a hotel, and later informs Newland he’s acting as an agent of the Count, her husband, who’s trying to arrange her return to Europe. But Rivière surprisingly implores Newland: “Don’t let her go back!”
Cocks understood Scorsese well in giving him the book. The Age of Innocence crystallizes one of the most consistent of Scorsese’s themes—doomed and impossible passions, and torturous male-female relationships afflict the protagonists of almost all of his films. Newland is a sensitive, romantic aesthete; he reads voraciously (having all the latest books shipped from London), and absorbs paintings, poetry, and books on Japan with a longing fervor for traces of life outside the commonplace—all of which Scorsese’s camera drinks in with the same enraptured poise. Scorsese’s films are always careful to counterpoint individual drama with social environment and cultural evocation, and Newland does this consciously as a character. He studies techniques in the first wave of Impressionist paintings and considers his own place in the ludicrous niceties of the New York upper crust with the same intelligence. Newland seeks something of the same passion, fulfillment, and sensual release he gets from art in his life, and he absorbs the pleasures of his love for Ellen in the same way—standing back and watching, meditating, critiquing, savoring, constantly driven beyond his good sense by the force of his yearning. Newland becomes one the most personal and aware of Scorsese’s heroes. His own ironic relation to his world resembles Scorsese’s reactions to his own background.
Newland and Ellen are finally driven apart irrevocably, as Newland tries to confess all to May, who slyly prevents him from doing so. When Mrs. Mingott suffers a stroke, she concludes her affairs by arranging for Ellen’s permanent independence from her husband, whereupon Ellen abruptly sets about returning to Europe. Newland and Ellen have been seen by Luffets and Jackson on the street, a fleeting glance. May arranges a farewell dinner for Ellen, attended by the scintillating members of society, up to and including the Van der Luydens, and, Newland realizes it’s a purposeful show of support for May in triumphing over her rival, his presumed mistress. Newland announces to May he intends to give up the law and travel—code for his intention to follow Ellen to Paris. But May gains her final victory; kneeling in the passive, entreating manner of a classic Victorian maid, she informs Newland she’s pregnant, and that it was her hinting this to Ellen that caused her to leave.
Some 30 years later, Newland is a widower with two grown children—his daughter married to one of Luffets’ sons, and his son Ted (Robert Sean Leonard) to a daughter of the Beauforts. He is a good-natured, well-seasoned gentleman who has successfully shepherded the family fortune into the budding 20th century. He lets his son coax him on a voyage to see Paris. There, Ted reveals that on her deathbed, his mother told him that Newland “nearly threw everything over” for Ellen, who still resides in Paris. Ted now insists they visit her. But Newland won’t go into her flat, sitting outside, a sundog from her window making him recall watching her on the pier. “I’m only 57,” Newland murmurs, but strolls idly away, content with his memories and the new, comforting assurance that May had been “one person who felt his anguish and took pity on him.”
The Age of Innocence moves as insistently as any Scorsese film. Michael Ballhaus’s camera swirls and soars with the precise grace of a waltz, and reproduces physical effects (as when Luffets surveys a crowd through binoculars, the editing reproduces the quick refocusing the human eye does at such a moment, rather than just panning) and enjoys the human spectacle. The Beauforts’ ball is a tour-de-force sequence, beginning with a wondrous layering of time-progressing shots, as the room is prepared; then the camera strolls through the halls and rooms of the house, discovering meeting groups, and finally soars high overhead to observe the geometric patterns made by the dancing couples. Color is used carefully, painted with a flat, slightly pressed texture, delicately recreating the texturing of the paintings Newland loves, but without walloping the eye with sheer prettiness (except in the necessarily dazzling dock scene). Such is Scorsese’s control that the film fills with some supreme moments of emotion (and a word of special praise to Elmer Bernstein for his lush, symphonic score).
Newland belongs to the people who owned and ran the world that Scorsese’s and so many others’ ancestors had to fight tooth and nail to penetrate, to win a share of respect and equality. The delicate pinpricks deployed at the top of the social heap manifest as sabers at the bottom; there are things at stake in this social organization Newland never begins to contemplate. The Age of Innocence is a dream-memory of an era beauteously decaying, just past the edge of recollection. In the end, Newland drifts away from confronting a past that never worked out, content to keep the pleasant, glorious impressions in mind. He might not have gained everything he wanted, but as all things become with passing time, even the things he wanted were just milestones on a journey.