Wednesday 22 March 2023

Out of the past: "The Age of Innocence"

To these eyes, 1993's The Age of Innocence remains Martin Scorsese's most purely beautiful film. In the three decades since its release, however, it's often been overlooked in favour of this director's more characteristic mature-period endeavours: 1990's canonical GoodFellas, 1995's Casino (with its still-rising reputation), even 1991's Cape Fear, if the the remote's out of reach and you're feeling trashy. For his adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel, Scorsese rallied his creative A team (Jay Cocks, Ellen Lewis, Michael Ballhaus, Dante Ferretti, Gabriella Pescucci, Elmer Bernstein on score, plus Saul Bass on opening-credits duty and Thelma Schoonmaker in the edit suite) to fashion a film as rich in detail and texture as those better-known crime stories are in violent incident. A world of old money - 1870s New York - is here returned to vivid life by new Hollywood money; it's a film of top-dollar tapestries overlooking troubled-over table settings. Every location here is approached like the Copacabana nightclub, worthy of a sinuous tracking shot, and offering something seductive to gawp at wherever the camera winds and Madame Schoonmaker cuts. The characters may be bound by genteel good manners - tragically so, it transpires - but Scorsese just hoovers it all up, with much the same enthusiasm his younger self once demonstrated for cocaine. He can't get enough of it; neither, I think, can we.

The question floated by a small number of sceptics on first release was whether the actors could be fully felt though these multiple layers of finery (or, in Miriam Margolyes' case, the moving blanket of Mrs. Mingott's lapdogs). More so than ever, the performers' struggle seems to be the characters' struggle: to escape an intensely, oppressively formalised world, rather than submitting to and finally disappearing within it. (One issue the film raises with 19th century society: how difficult it must be to get intimate with someone when you're boxed in by fruit and flower arrangements.) No stranger to wayward appetites himself, Scorsese offers his forbidden lovers the occasional hand: whether irising in on Newland (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the scandalous Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) at the interval of a play or granting them fleeting moments of gloveless passion in the back of a hansom cab, he's always alert to the advantages of creating a world of one's own - a new world, if you like. But the weight of the old world, and of the old ways, bears relentlessly down on the leads. Unable to do their bidding with baseball bats, tyre irons and expletives - to do anything half as eruptive as the mobsters in GoodFellas - they're instead forced to make do with coded words, telling gestures and longing looks. These are details, too - very human detail - and as the performers set about knitting them into the film's own tapestry, Scorsese finds dynamic ways to draw our eye and ear towards them.

From this wealth of detail, what do we gather? Chiefly that - a century on from the novel's publication, 150 years on from the period described - these characters remain closer to us in spirit than they might at first appear. They're not stuffed shirts; we see and hear their hearts beating. "All I really want is to feel cared for and safe," Olenska sighs on returning to America, and you wouldn't have to have been disgraced by your philandering count of a husband to share that desire. Newland, for his part, is caught between a girl considered by his peers to be a suitable match and a woman with whom he shares a deep and natural affinity. Infidelity and emotional betrayal didn't die out at the turn of the 20th century; Scorsese catches and senses the grubbiness of it, knows the regrettable scene it will make, and this is almost certainly a stronger film for having been made by someone who saw at close-quarters the reckless strip the movie brats tore through Hollywood in the 1970s. He was older and wiser (not to mention sober) by 1993, of course. As Newland's bride-to-be May, Winona Ryder is perfectly insipid (key phrase in Joanne Woodward's narration: "inexpressive girlishness") in a way that suggests active choices on the actress's and her director's part. Ryder is so sweetly doting that she complicates the central relationship only further. This May deserves better than to be cheated on, and Scorsese is touchingly protective of her, out of an informed fear that the leads are going to do her horribly dirty.

That risk still hovers over the second half, but the stars earn our sympathies anyway, a sign that Scorsese was at least as involved with the performances as he was with the décor. In retrospect, this now looks like a pinnacle for Pfeiffer; her subsequent vehicles never really understood how to use her angles. She's tough in a brittle way, inviting Newland into her confidences only to dash his hopes, and while she's a true match for Day-Lewis in their scenes of verbal jousting - the Dangerous Liaisons movie was mere warm-up - she's equally potent as an absence, setting both hero and us to wonder where the Countess is, what she's doing, and whom she might be doing it with. As for Day-Lewis, not at this point enshrined as a genius but heading that way, he does a fine sketch of an upright yet slightly uptight fellow heading for an awful fall: the realisation he may be far more of his time than he'd once hoped. To watch him here is to be reminded of a time when male leads could make a strength out of stillness and a heightened sensitivity: he makes visible Newland's vacillations, and you worry he might simply swoon at any moment. To watch him here is to understand exactly why Day-Lewis has sat out the largely insensate movies of the past decade: there's just very little for him now. The Age of Innocence stands as a great adaptation by a great popular artist, carefully porting a novel's wisdom into a new medium, but it also marks the end of a certain innocence in Scorsese's filmmaking - and the American cinema. The next time this filmmaker revisited 19th century Manhattan in Day-Lewis's company, the result was 2002's Gangs of New York: scaled up by computer, and getting nowhere near its predecessor's precision and intensity of emotion.

A 30th anniversary 4K restoration of The Age of Innocence is now playing in selected cinemas; the film is also available to stream on Netflix.

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