"The Age of Innocence"
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Released by Columbia
The irony in the title is the snapper: "The Age of Innocence" is about the least innocent age ever, except for the one that came before and the one that came after and the one we are in now. Edith Wharton's point is exquisitely amplified by Martin Scorsese's vivid recreation of her novel: There is no innocence, innocence is an illusion. There is only society and its tribalism, its quietly murderous ways of enforcing order among the brethren, and nobody, not even the richest, the most privileged, the most beautiful, is free to follow his heart's desires.
The story proper is about an apostasy: A young man falls in love with the wrong woman. Very subtly but very forcefully, he will be corrected. He may be destroyed, he may be exiled, he may be forgiven, he may eventually be allowed back in. His fate really isn't important. What is important is that . . . he will be corrected.
It's New York in the 1870s, at the very top of the pyramid, where the five families run everything and life is just swell as long as you play by the rules and use the right forks. In a minor dukedom that is a part of the pyramid but not precisely located at its pinnacle, Newland Archer, young man on the go, is in love with May Welland, you know, of the Wellands. The two seem ideally suited. Each has that inner glow privilege confers upon its receptors, and each seems like a child of the sun. It hurts not a bit that they are played by two of the most exquisitely beautiful people in movies, Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, wren-boned kewpie dolls of ceramic perfection.
In the radiant, yearning ardency of each, one can read the marriage that will follow: proper, sanctioned, hell-bent on tTC producing progeny and fitting in to the larger tradition. In the union, somehow, there is a foredestined survival of the society. It is well and good. It is perfection. They are made for each other. But somehow . . . multiple orgasms? No way!
Alas, into the Eden a serpent is about to slither, a serpent who carries with it (her, actually) just the faintest perfume of that most blasphemed enemy of propriety for which men have fought and died for generations, you know, . . . that terrible stuff called freedom. She's Countess Ellen Olenska, wide of eye and frank of manner, witty, brutally, incandescently aware, with an X-ray eye for hypocrisy and a hunger for cigarettes and, possibly, men. The countess, a mysterious minor relation of the Wellands, who will intercede on her behalf with the rulers of the realm, is something of a novelty item. Married to and "treated badly" by a Polish nobleman, she has returned to the United States to lick wounds. In Europe, it was rumored she took lovers (her husband had done more of the same first) and ran with an artsy crowd.
One wonders if Michelle Pfeiffer is quite the person to play the role, lacking the complex hint of texture and mystery and cosmopolitan darkness of the novel. Yes, one wonders -- for about three-tenths of a second. Then one stops wondering. Pfeiffer transcends her beauty (which may actually be a handicap here) and comes to stand for something else, the ambrosia of possibility. Her eye language, for example, is probing and eloquent and so subversive. Her casual willingness to prick balloons of pomposity and outquip any man in the room quickly earn her a posse of devotees, but she seems most drawn to Archer and he to her.
On top of the social physics that make each so inappropriate to the other, there is one other subtextual reality to the relationship: Unspoken and unacknowledged under the flawless wardrobes, the high Victorian gussets and buttons and snaps and garters, ** the acres of crinoline and gallons of gathered silk, each is . . . hot to trot.
Maybe it's that in a society that has no vocabulary for sex and hasn't begun to acknowledge an unconscious, sexual stirrings come to have the power of riptides from hell. In any event, when the Countess and Archer stare moistly at each other across a room, the room suddenly feels like a seething brothel in Bangkok on a hot and sweaty night in 1968 with the 101st Airborne in for a weekend R and R after many long months of combat in the Central Highlands. Whoa, baby, the heat.
"The Age of Innocence," though, isn't about having sex but about its corollary condition: not having sex. It throbs with wantonness as passionately as any pornographic work, yet it is not merely sexless, it's also kissless and touchless. One feels the ache in the air like a piercing head pain. I think that Day-Lewis is particularly good at etching the thunder of Newland's dilemma: The more he wants, the farther into the shadow of denial he places himself. But finally . . . it begins: the little lies, the unexplained absences, the awkward attempts to excuse a curious lateness. He's Homo Adulterous but the adultery he's committed is the adultery of the mind. It's enough. He will be punished.
Some will say that Scorsese has simply bumbled into Merchant-Ivory territory in a search for Oscars, and it's true that thematically "The Age of Innocence," with its matrix of wanting and not having bears intellectual similarity to the works of E. M. Forster, whom Merchant-Ivory have pillaged with great success in "Room with a View" and others. However, the street-tough Scorsese remains truer to himself than to anybody else. He attacks the material, tears into it, throws his camera into rooms and wills them alive. He's working off models like Luchino and 0isconti and Orson Welles' great dissection of Midwestern society, "The Magnificent Ambersons"; his camera is alive in a way that the more sedate and less revolutionary James Ivory couldn't begin to conceive of.
In sum, "The Age of Innocence" is that rarity: a movie set in the past that illuminates the present.