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Edith Wharton’s restrained turn-of-the-century novel about restraint—in which two people think about doing something and then don’t do it—is not the most obvious choice for cinematic adaptation. And because these same people wear white gloves and boutonnieres when they think about what they’re not going to do, Martin Scorsese doesn’t seem the likeliest person in the world to direct it such a project.
The director’s The Age of Innocence opens with more unfurling blossoms and surging music than there is in all of The Secret Garden, but then, Wharton’s conflicted hero, Newland Archer, isn’t exactly Travis Bickle. Meticulous in its period detail and fastidiously true to the book, Innocence, adapted for the screen by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, nonetheless comes and goes almost too prettily, packing only the daintiest of emotional punches. Which is a shame, because the upper-crust society of 19th-century New York with which Wharton’s novel is concerned is, in its own way, as brutal as many of Scorsese’s customary subjects. And it is all the more sinister for its genteel facade.
Scorsese wisely retains Wharton’s use of the opera as a framing device. The stage’s artifice is a perfect precursor for the artifice of a society in which knowing one’s role and playing it properly is paramount. Even more to the point, the story is almost the stuff of grand opera. But like Wharton’s Ethan Frome, which made for a similarly ponderous film earlier this year, The Age of Innocence is a tale of frustrated passion in which characters for the most part yearn without taking action: There’s no suicide or adultery to be had. While both are good books, they make for pallid films. It’s certainly clear why Joanne Woodward’s narration was deemed a necessity—the brilliance of Wharton’s novel is in her astute descriptions—but at length it becomes odd that a disembodied voice has so much more to say than the film’s characters.
Of course, we’d never know anything about them if the narrator didn’t tell us, because the film is about a milieu that precluded not only frankness but any direct communication at all. Scorsese has the same difficulty that plagues so many Merchant Ivory pictures: Namely, making cinema of a novel so discreet the reader isn’t always sure what’s going on. Set in 1870s New York, Innocence revolves around Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a young lawyer who is busily immersed in doing what is expected of him. Engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), Newland is caught unawares when he falls in love with May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Having left her rich European husband and set up housekeeping on her own in New York, Ellen is the subject of considerable scandal in Newland’s hermetic world.
The filmmakers deserve credit for resisting the urge to embellish Wharton’s tale (if not for the inclusion of cameos by both Scorsese and his dog). Very little in Innocence is overt: After all, it’s only thanks to the narrator that we know Newland “questioned conformity in private” or that “the taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth.” Gradually, Newland finds himself siding with Ellen against his family and friends in a world where being snubbed is tantamount to catastrophe. Even when Newland is conquered by passion, though, he responds by fervently kissing Ellen’s shoe. But this is a story in which small things have big meanings. And a single exchange between Newland and May is sufficient to capture a world of incompatibility:
Her: “What are you reading?”
Him: “A book about Japan.”
The aspect of the film that seems customary Scorsese fare is its New York setting. The book’s offhand mention that May’s Aunt Mingott lives in the wilderness “out near Central Park” becomes the occasion for a shot of her house from the outside—a single dwelling sitting alone in a empty expanse of mud. The visual is effective in capturing a sense of time elapsed between Wharton’s New York and the modern one. Other directorial flourishes are more intrusive. Scorsese handles the novel’s epistles by having every letter’s author face the camera and recite what they have written; as Newland and Ellen talk at the opera, the screen goes black except for their faces, and only their voices are heard. Both moments seem to emphasize the cinematic medium rather extraneously.
Scorsese takes every available opportunity to give visual expression to the era’s passion for order, the same order that Newland eventually recognizes as representing the tyranny of ritual. Aerial views capture the symmetry of an intricate ball dance. Shot after shot closes in on elaborately presented food and as elaborately appointed table settings. The filmmaker’s every detail seems calculated to articulate a time and a society in which every move was meticulously choreographed—beautiful, yet making no allowance for deviation.
The most striking aspect of Innocence is its loving attention to period detail. And its credits—for “table decoration consultant” and the like—attest to this obsession. But this deliberate care belies a certain lack of attention to larger issues. Why, in a film so historically correct that its men painstakingly clip their cigars before smoking them, are such unconvincing actresses as Pfeiffer and Ryder (incongruities in Dangerous Liaisons and Dracula, respectively) the female leads? Both are unalterably contemporary, a fact thrown into relief by Day-Lewis and others—notably Richard E. Grant, who was born to play haughty socialite Larry Lefferts. But the modern world insinuates itself into the film in more ways than one: The inclusion of Enya on the soundtrack is as jarring as if one of the characters suddenly whipped out a laptop computer.