FILM / Mastering the past: The Big Picture: Adam Mars-Jones on Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence

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Martin Scorsese's splendid film of The Age of Innocence (U) shows a great director reformulating a much imitated style (there were signs in Cape Fear of even Scorsese imitating it) for a softer subject, an artist tackling an unfamiliar milieu and emerging refreshed from the collision. Scorsese without the dynamism, his love of energy for its own sake, would be unthinkable, but here his dynamism is subtler, altered to suit a world where confrontation hardly exists and everything is done by indirection.

The great virtue of the film is that it takes the past seriously and sets about the task of bringing it to life detail by detail, without false immediacy. We have to make a tiny mental effort to find a similarity with something familiar to us. An example would be a shot of hundreds of men running towards us in slow motion, holding on to the brims of their bowler hats. The impression is of a stampede with the cattle replaced by Victorians with facial hair, and the realisation that this is simply the rush hour of the 1870s takes a few extra seconds.

Plutocratic Manhattan looks wonderful (Dante Ferretti the production designer, Michael Ballhaus the director of photography), but there's none of that feeling - bane of the period film - that every last tallboy is murmuring 'Look at me I'm mahogany'. Scorsese and his incomparable editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, have devised a film language that tends to alternate people and the objects with which they are surrounded, rather than combining them in a single shot. If they are dining, as they so often are, then we are shown soft montages of their food while they speak, lunges of images dense with social information. We have to work out for ourselves in what way exactly these people are what they eat, or how they eat.

Some of the manoeuvring is easy to follow. When a deputation pays a call on a couple who are presumably modelled on the Vanderbilts, to explain that a relative has been mistreated and to demand social justice, we are not so very far away from gangster territory after all, from GoodFellas or at least from The Godfather, where the talk is always honour and the truth is always power. Scenes of after-dinner conversation between two gentlemen may be digestively relaxed but socially tense, if one of them (played by Alec McCowen) has appointed himself expert in matters of manners. By filming almost fetishistically the snipping of cigars on these occasions, Scorsese conveys that there is a sort of phallic duel going on, even a shoot-out, all at the level of etiquette. When Newland Archer (Daniel Day- Lewis) defiantly expands his telescoping propelling pencil to write to the Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), its click is like the cocking of a pistol.

Other nuances need to be explained to us. Scorsese has chosen to use a narration in voice-over not to introduce us to this world, exactly, but to alert us from time to time to the breaking of unwritten rules. There are acceptable ways of doing even the theoretically unacceptable things. One rich man shocks society by hanging a nude painting in a public room. No one would question a gentleman's right to own such a thing, but it is an inappropriate wall. However, his house contains a ballroom as well as the offending wall, a rarity which ensures that minor indiscretions will be overlooked.

It seems unlikely that Martin Scorsese can find no cinema language to convey that the Countess, detaching herself from a group at a party to approach a man alone, is going against convention, but if we do need a voice-over for this purpose then it could hardly be delivered better than by Joanne Woodward's warm, astringent drawl. The narrator introduces us to a crucial triad of adjectives: intrepid, audacious, flagrant. Society admires intrepidity (especially in business), worries about audacity, and disowns flagrance.

This society is of course hypocritical, that is, it lives by rules, but in practice hypocrisy is understood by all and makes everything possible. A wife does not demand to be told the truth, but can justifiably expect to be lied to properly. The film conveys so strong a sense of hypocrisy as the secret strength of the world it shows us - a world that Edith Wharton criticised from inside rather than out - that it almost undoes the story of romance it also wants to tell. When a society is too sophisticated to demand virtue, it becomes almost perverse to refuse what it does demand.

Day-Lewis is the British actor who comes closest to American methods of preparation for a role, but there is still a difference. Whereas Robert De Niro brings a fixed amount of energy to a part, though he may express it in different ways, Day-Lewis builds up his energy to the point that fits the role. His Newland Archer is both robust and delicate: we see his face recovering from an excess of emotion after the big renunciation scene of a melodramatic play. Yet there is something ridiculous about his sensitivity to it, when others in the audience enjoy these sugar treats of honour and sacrifice exactly because they are on stage, where they belong, and receive only lip service elsewhere.

The film doesn't engage us directly with its hero's passion. When the screen bursts into a flare of yellow or red, the effect is ravishing, but not emotionally convincing, since we have no sense of being behind the character's eye. It remains an effect. The most exciting expression of the attraction between the two lovers isn't the rapt unbuttoning of a glove, the increasingly fervent kisses, but the moment where Archer kneels to kiss the Countess's slipper - and that is because of a subtle syncopation of film language, her voice continuing on the soundtrack while the image seems to have slipped forward to a later moment in the scene, or to represent a wish not yet acted upon.

Edith Wharton's lovers are worldly enough to know that there is no life for them outside their society - the Countess has already had sufficient experience of exile in Europe. She doesn't want to be Archer's mistress, not because such a thing is unheard of in plutocratic Manhattan, but because it happens every day. In a sense it is tragic that this couple should be separated by those around them, who don't so much fear the worst as absolutely assume it, but it is a tragedy that saves them from cheapness. Their passion, for all its intensity, has agreed to reduce itself to a one-night stand ('Shall I come to you once?', 'Come to me once, then.') before tragedy saves them. Scorsese's camera shows us, magically, a series of envelopes disappearing to reveal other envelopes, and inside the last one the banality of a door key. Inside the formal stationery of decorum there is the base metal of ordinary betrayal. Better to be prevented from using it.

The strange essence of Scorsese's film seems to be that it is a story of time-bound passion and worldly compromise told as if it was the opposite, a romance timeless in its poignance. Towards the end of the film, the director seems to realise that he is delivering something a little different from what was promised, and perhaps from what he thought to make, and he starts to let his composer, Elmer Bernstein, take up slack, while earlier on he had daringly removed music from important scenes, stripping away the acoustic plush with which films habitually upholster the high-class past.

In the film's epilogue, Archer remembers a day at Newport when he waited for the Countess, looking out to sea, to turn towards him. She never did, though it turned out later that she knew he was there. No, in fantasy, she does turn. The sea is a fizz of golden bubbles, bathed in the harsh shimmer of the light the Impressionists loved. Yet when Scorsese is painterly, he is closest to being hollow. The wonderful best of The Age of Innocence succeeds precisely because the director hasn't allowed himself to be satisfied by a picture of the past.

(Photograph omitted)