The Age of Innocence (1993)

Dir. Martin Scorsese. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder

The Age of Innocence is the mirror universe of Gangs of New York, films released and set less than ten years apart, with the same director and the same leading man. Admittedly, the differences begin to proliferate from there; Day-Lewis’ Newland Archer is never quite as compelling as his Bill Cutting, Ryder is far better suited to her role than Cameron Diaz, and Scorsese demonstrates a management of his second act in Innocence  which makes his future self look like he’s lost his touch.

There may not be a film in Scorsese’s oeuvre which uses color to its advantage in the same way that The Age of Innocence does. There were fewer red walls in Maoist China than in 1870s New York, by the look of it, and they provide a fitting background for the characters who work within their strictures, a reminder of something passionate and heaving and dangerous surrounding people who make distance an art form. It has to remind you of blood – maybe it’s because this film is only three years out from Goodfellas – and yet it feels tawdry to assign blood such a primary role in this movie, where anything associated with flesh is hidden. Hiding, compartmentalizing, rationalizing: it all amounts, in the end, to the same kind of deception which each of the characters play their part in supporting.

Artifice is the film’s watchword, though no one would be so obvious as to say it aloud. But the way that people stand together in groups of three or four, the way that each plate is created at table, the way that each room is decorated to the gills, all suggest some kind of forethought, as if everyone had to pre-write their actions. There are scenes which are obviously models, such as the sunset in Newport or the carriage ride in London, and yet they work just fine; like Black Narcissus, which is filmed on location as much as a ’50s sitcom, the fact that the setting has to be created at all is a statement to the falseness at the heart of the place. The film leans heavily on the routine of going to the opera, or at least to the theater. The implication is fairly clear – that “real people” act too! – and yet it’s the only way that someone like Archer, the dilettante (a word used in the novel but not in the film, so far as I can tell), can really feel. It takes people under spotlights, stage makeup melting and wigs holding on, to further the sense that everyone else is constantly on stage, with their steps blocked and their costumes ready. Even the sex is implied and staged. The kissing is awkward, the neophyte necking of pre-teens, and the most ardent display comes when Newland, weeping and shaking, kisses Ellen’s slipper and then bends over Ellen’s torso and holds her tightly. She rests her hands on his back, like she’s not sure what to do.

Whether or not Newland would have shaken himself out of his torpor without the arrival of Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer) in New York is an interesting question, and the answer is almost certainly yes, albeit in less dramatic fashion. Like Larry Lefferts or Julius Beaufort, he would have taken refuge with some other man’s wife; like Larry or Julius, it probably would have caused no real change in him and created a delta-zero of happiness in the long run, wherein any pleasure from the affair would be negated by the scandal and remonstrance within his tiny social circle.

Ellen does make the change in him, and early on in his life, too. It’s hinted more than once that she has always been the woman he was most interested in; Mrs. Manson Mingott (Miriam Margoyles, who at least furthers the alliteration) tells him to his face that he should have married Ellen. Newland tries to be coy, though he’s clearly unsettled, telling her that she was not available. At this point, he is knee-deep in her, and she’s every bit as married as she was before. Both he and Ellen know how much pain they’re causing everyone they care about, how thin the veneer of their lies are (even in comparison to upper-class New York society), how little satisfaction there is to gain. They play games, willing to gamble their stability or happiness on the smallest of gestures. Newland, famously, tells himself that he will not go down to speak to Ellen unless she turns around by the time a sailboat passes a lighthouse. She does not turn, and he does not go to her in the sunset.

One of the several pleasures of The Age of Innocence is that it places Newland Archer in a position where we learn about the women around him through him, making him the tool and the women the interesting characters; this is the reverse of how it usually is in movies, even in the good/interesting ones. (Don’t ask me why, but the first movie I thought of which does the conventional thing is Shame, which forces Michael Fassbender to reckon with himself because of Carey Mulligan.) Ultimately, the most interesting characters in the film are Ellen and May (Ryder). Ellen is an outcast for reasons that, even by the standard of virtual randomness that the film sets, are a little vague. Presumably, it’s because she lived with her husband’s secretary for a year or so after leaving her husband, who is universally recognized as a roue and cad. And yet the roots of it are deeper. Is it because she can’t figure out that palling around with Julius Beaufort, maybe the least useful friend she could make in New York, is a bad idea? Is it because she has an “artistic temperament,” and twenty years hence would fit in perfectly at the Moulin Rouge? Is it because she’s luring Newland away from his circumspect little wife? Is it because she is not shamefaced enough about her past? Is it because she has opinions that she’s willing to share with men? Is it because she asked a law firm about divorce proceedings from her husband? Or is it because she left her husband at all? Those answers are not forthcoming, and it’s part of the wonder of the movie. It makes her more mysterious, and through her interactions with Newland we recognize her intentions are mostly benign. She is friendly, helpful, cheerful as she can be, insightful. Newland provides her a stock answer when she asks him how she feels about May: he loves her “as much as a man can.” Ellen asks, kittenishly ballcutting, “Is there a limit?” (It’s the film’s second-funniest moment. The funniest comes much later when Newland, who learned how to love out of contemporary novels and poetry, finds a parasol sitting around and holds it under his nose, inhaling deeply. It’s Ellen’s scent, and it is intoxicating and invigorating…until he finds out that it belongs to a teenage girl.)

May is somehow even more dangerous and fascinating, and Ryder is positioned wonderfully to play her. Ryder’s star image is inevitably tied up with a certain kind of pretty fragility, bone china with deep scratches in it, which has only grown stronger as her personal life has become the stuff tabloid dreams are made of. Her early films, which include The Age of Innocence, also include Beetlejuice, Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, Night on Earth, Dracula, and Little Women, leading into Girl, Interrupted, which feels like a turning point in her career where the fragility is more important than the pretty. May Welland is certainly her daintiest character, if somewhat less breathy than Kim Boggs, but has all of Corky’s self-assurance and direction. May is not tricky; to some extent she certainly believes in the conventions of New York high society, but no one can be quite as airheaded as Newland presumes her to be before she offers to release him from their engagement, concerned that he’s rushing their engagement because he doesn’t really know if he wants to marry her. She’s right – and she knows she’s right, and he knows she’s right – though Newland never does admit it. She convinces her mother to move the wedding up by several months. Later, she tells Ellen that she’s pregnant – two weeks before she knew for certain – as a way to get her to back off of her husband. Fatherhood, more than marriage, anchors Newland to his wife. She outplays him twice, and they are the only times they engage in this sort of courting gamesmanship.

Her best scene, in the finest tradition of the Gilded Age, occurs when she’s dead. Her eldest son, Ted (Robert Sean Leonard, whose best scene comes after he puts the “dead” in Dead Poets Society), tells his widowered father that May knew that Newland was trustworthy (conventional) once he gave up what he wanted (Ellen) for her. Newland, nearly sixty, is stunned, and it’s hard to tell if it’s because he didn’t expect that May would have understood the extent of his sacrifice, or if it’s because he can’t believe that his wife would have been that open with his son about so distasteful a memory. In short, he is forced to come to terms with a wife who was much more than he ever gave her credit for being. She was far more sapient and wise than he ever gave her credit for being; he confused stability for vapidness.

Perhaps that’s why, aged and beyond consequence, in a scene which ranks among Scorsese’s very best, he sits alone on a bench for a few moments and finally walks away from Ellen’s window (though she is aged and beyond consequence herself). It’s a powerful final scene, one which is steeped in all of the regret and the doubt which have already been the touchstones of the film, a lovely capstone for this Romanesque manor. Ted goes upstairs to visit the countess, aghast that his father won’t follow. (Ted is the spiritual forerunner of the likewise modern Sissy Jessup in It Can’t Happen Here, a novel fifteen years younger than The Age of Innocence; she casually suggests that her married father, a good liberal, should have an affair with a woman in town.) And Newland remains there, on the ground floor, looking up at her awning. And then, relying a little more on his cane than he probably needs to, he wanders off while the camera stays just where it is.

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