CINEMA / Innocence: an experience

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MARTIN SCORSESE makes a brave new cinematic world out of old New York in The Age of Innocence (U). The past, so often in movies a prettified relic, our own world wrapped in ermine, is here vibrantly strange - recognisable, but altered in every opulent detail, heavy with an antique spirit of decorum and restraint. The costumes are a drama in themselves.

It's the 1870s, and we're at the opera for Faust. Even the stage-light seems odd: green - literally, limelight. The camera glides and swoops around the auditorium, alighting on the gardenia in the buttonhole of the buttoned-up Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis). In the box with Archer, two of society's connoisseurs of form savour the outrage caused by the presence of the beautiful Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who left her husband back in Europe. She's in the box of the Wellands, soon to be Newland's in-laws - his betrothal to their daughter May (Winona Ryder) will be announced later. As temptation beckons on stage, buried passions in the auditorium start to smoulder, and Scorsese's imagination begins to blaze. When the snobs scour the crowd through binoculars, we don't get a pair of sights, but a flickering strobe-effect: a better likeness of the glasses' unsteady vision and a hint at their holders' febrile relish of scandal.

When the opera gives way to the ballroom, and more plush scarlet, Scorsese seems overwhelmed by lost luxury. We can't keep count of the formal dinners, let alone courses. But all the time he is building up a picture of the society that stifles the feelings which grow between Newland and the Countess. This is a world without free will, so its characters are often shot under portraits doubling their poses. The dancing at the ball is as rigidly formal and precise as the lives of the society figures on the floor. Images dissolve into one another as if to show the timelessness of it all. Without the lavish detail, we wouldn't understand what the infatuated couple have to fight.

In both Edith Wharton's novel and the film, Newland Archer is our entree - and the only possible exit. It is his questioning spirit on to which Wharton latches: with a love of culture, sense of injustice, and keen intelligence, he sees beyond his world. It becomes a question of whether there is a way out, and whether Newland has the courage to take it. Day- Lewis, with the dashing vulnerability of the young Montgomery Clift, sickly and priggish as well as noble, writes on his features every nuance of Newland's wavering, sensitive spirit. Under the evening dress we watch the writhing of his soul. When the Countess, with an outsider's indiscretion, tells him she finds a pair of social big- wigs dull, he bursts into a helpless guffaw. It seems as if it's the first time he's truly laughed.

As his inamorata, Michelle Pfeiffer is more than adequate, but subtly miscast. Never mind that with her obvious beauty and blonde ringlets she doesn't resemble the book's slightly faded, gipsyish Countess. She should, however, seem different from those censuring her - a rounded personality in a world of squares. When Pfeiffer chafes against her personal history and her foreignness, it rings untrue, because she doesn't seem to have much of a past and she is not far from the all-American girl. Winona Ryder isn't Wharton's Amazonian prototype, but in her doll-like delicacy laced with deceptive resilience, she gets close to May Welland's manufactured innocence.

Scorsese's greatest problem is that the novel's drama is interior. 'They all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world,' wrote Wharton, 'where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.' By sheer cinematic virtuosity, Scorsese shows us that 'real thing'. When Archer attends a society tea in a summer house, and the tittle-tattle about parties and horse-races chatters on, the camera circles the other guests, emphasising his alienation. At the moment when Archer feels most isolated from society the whole background behind him flares red - crimson shades of Michael Powell. When he reads a devastating letter, the camera tracks in to his eyes and everything else becomes dark. The film would work as a silent movie.

More dubiously, Scorsese gives us the novel's subtext through great slabs of Wharton, in Joanne Woodward's parchment-dry narration. He may have been unable to resist such put-downs as Newland's of his fiancee: 'It was wonderful, he thought, that such depths of feeling could co-exist with such an absence of imagination.' Each character is introduced with a pen-portrait and a slowing of the camera. You expect the narrator to slip away as the drama gets afoot, but on she stays, with a box of bons mots.

The narration is there to supply the book's delicate irony. It has been argued that Edith Wharton's New York, with its tribal customs and rituals, is not so far away from Scorsese's mean streets. But her stealthy, feline wit is a world away from his raging bullishness. Though it's full of gently humorous performances (mainly from British character actors - Miriam Margolyes, Alec McCowen, Richard E Grant, Michael Gough) the film lacks some of Wharton's ambivalence: the sense of the benefits of an ordered society as well as the burdens. The final scene in Paris, 26 years after the main drama, misses the book's feeling of a blithe new generation already on the slide towards the casual relationships of the modern world, where the spirits are higher but the stakes are lower.

But these are questions of shading in a rich tapestry. Scorsese has reinvented the costume drama. He has given us a vanished New York, where crowds of city gents hold on to their bowlers against the winds that gust from the rivers of a city without skyscrapers. And he provides an abiding image of unrequited romance, of the lovers gazing, separately, out at a sea that sparkles with a brilliance their future can't match.

Robin Williams's box-office gold mine Mrs Doubtfire (12) opens with the vocally promiscuous comic in his direst sentimental mode, eyebrows overworking, voice a soupy vibrato. His marriage (to Sally Field - as if we didn't have enough slush) has broken up, and he is denied access to his kids. Soon, cross words lead to cross-dressing: to see his children, Williams poses as home-help Mrs Doubtfire, a thin-lipped, thick-waisted, Scots matron with a prissy Jean Brodie voice and a platitude for every occasion. She brightens the home and the film.

The gags come fast and louche: a fallen stocking revealing a hairy leg; some frantic quick changes; an unladylike wallop for a bag-snatcher. We saw them in Tootsie, which was tighter and tougher. But there's also the odd inspired Williams roll (with spot-on Jack Nicholson and Sean Connery take- offs). I only wish he'd stop trying to be lovable. His best moments in Mrs Doubtfire - hoaxing his wife with fake calls from outlandishly unsuitable helps; spitting venom at her new lover - are all malicious.

In Decadence (18) Steven Berkoff rubs our noses in the ordure of English life. A Swiftian satire, with a heavy emphasis on bodily functions, it switches between two couples (both played by Berkoff and Joan Collins): a pair of toffs in evening dress, and a pair of proto-Essex people in their pad. Subtle it's not. But when I saw the original stage show in 1983, its blistering pace and visceral wit carried the audience along in uproarious laughter. The poetic flights of fantasy and stylised acting are so theatrical that the film deadens them. Its main value is in preserving Berkoff's remarkable performance, a grotesque but deadly parody of the tics of speech and movement of two species of English male. Joan Collins is a limited foil for him, lacking the husky abandon of Linda Marlowe in the stage role. One or two anachronisms have slipped in too - the play feels very much a piece of the appetitive Eighties.