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Scorsese blends cinematic, literary brilliance in new film

The Age of Innocence
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis,
Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder.

By Craig K. Chang

Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, based on Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, homes in on a story of conflict between lust and moral obligation against the backdrop of an extremely rigid social code. The morality that binds the story's hero, Newland Archer, comes straight from the aristocratic conventions that engulf his life. The lust component is Ellen Olenska, the "unrespectable" cousin of Archer's fiancee. Scorsese uses Wharton's material to weave a superb tapestry of a man struggling with convention and stereotype in order to escape a restraining social web.

This "web" comprises the highest stratum of New York culture in the 1870s and the most important of its conventions is a strict code of silence. Unpleasant things are kept hush, so we witness a continuous buildup of tension between what is said and suspected. Scorsese pays close attention to revealing the subtlety of people eavesdropping and telling numerous white lies that make up the essentials of daily life.

The film begins appropriately with a clear demonstration of the usual socialite masquerading that so occupies the time of this select tribe -- the opera. The narrator's voice, provided by Joanne Woodward, provides a running commentary of each man's particular niche in this urbane society, but most importantly points out that most of the men and women there can't wait to get out of this particular production of Faust. That is our first glimpse of Wharton's idea of a new American elite settling itself in New York -- and of Scorsese's craftsmanship. Even in this first scene, imaginative stop-frame photography shows that the occupants of the box seats are interested in everything but what's happening on stage. Right away we know we are in company of a master film maker.

The rest of the film takes just as much, if not more, care into maintaining an air of authenticity that really lends a believability factor to the modern audience. Supposedly, two years of research were put into getting the exact details of the era the film tries to portray. As the camera pans across the numerous feasts (such as the everyday thirteen course dinner) and parties, exquisite details put into the china, silverware, and flower arrangements shine through the screen to strengthen the foundation upon which the stories' themes must rely. Scorsese depicts the movements and mannerisms of high class nineteenth century New Yorkers with the same precision he put into his depiciton of New York gangsters in previous films.

What lurks beneath this rigid social code are fierce emotions. Daniel Day-Lewis's Newland Archer comes into our view as a man about to marry a pretty, though seemingly dull, May Welland (appropriately underacted her by Winona Ryder); however, he begins to fall for May's cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who exhibits an intellectual independence that probably scares the pants off the New York establishment.

What Newland associates with passion roots itself in what escapes the rest of the people who surround him. His second meeting with Ellen conveys this hidden passion as they mock and question the ridiculous rules of etiquette in New York. Ellen somehow brings out that part of him that has always suspected something inherently false about the life he leads. Ellen provides a vent for his long-bottled up feelings about the vacuous society he lives in. She represents the very thing that his other peers reject--a sort of spunk and rebellion that inherently questions the status quo. Precisely these traits threaten their patterns, the hermetic seal that favors empty calmness and pleasantness over reality.

The rest of the film meticulously outlines a coming to terms with this window of opportunity for Archer. There is instant chemistry between Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer. Day-Lewis so completely immerses himself in his role as a man who has at last met someone who can show him the "the flower of life" that we can almost sense a fire of dissatisfaction burning behind his eyes when his peers so flippantly object with Ellen's personality and actions. Scorsese's camera-work homes in on the inward reflection of his characters, whether it be a near-crying or a vacant gaze familiar to day-dreaming. In fact, the camera work enhances the thematic material of the film: as the camera spins around Archer, lingers on things that catch his eye, or as the lighting changes, the general effect suggests that Archer, in trying to break away from convention, becomes more a isolated and essentially a prisoner of the world around him.

The sad part is that Archer can't come to terms with his newfound desire in the same world. He repeatedly speaks of running off to another world, where present rules are thrown out the window. But even Ellen knows that nowhere can they live free of the social web.

But there never is any sort of Hollywood consummation, which would involve gratuitous groping and the obligatory nudity. The torrid passion between Newland and Ellen is of the imagination. The few times we see Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer kiss, it is a restrained release of incredible tension built up by what the characters know they want and can't have. It's as if the mind creates the ideal vision of love, and the fulfillment of the dreams just doesn't exist in the real world. What Newland must suffer through is realizing that he never can be free of the false world he so despises, because fully embracing his fantasy would tear apart the man of convention that he always was. Ellen, for that fact, becomes the symbol of all the things he missed.

With movies based on well-known novels, some people will always dispute the interpretation of the director. Either the film enhances the reader's notion of what the book should be like, or it sharply clashes with it. What Scorsese has done with The Age of Innocence excels as both an isolated work and a visualization of the architecture Wharton intended to convey. As we see Archer's "real" life in series of flashes, and finally in the most important final scene, Scorsese forces us to see that Archer wasn't the only one faced with sacrifice.

The film appears to be very Scorsese-like, despite the move from his typical turf. Many of Scorsese's films deal with people's struggle to make decisions, with what tears people up. Henry Hill of Goodfellas loved the rewards of being a mobster, but couldn't stand the guilt. Like Hill, Archer must face decisions that ultimately lead to one sacrifice or another: It's either fulfilling his fantasies with Ellen, while throwing away everything he has worked for, or settling for the domestic bliss that comes hand in hand with living a respectable life. In the end, Day-Lewis's choice is poignantly set off by his inability to fulfill what he made impossible. Archer realizes that it is less trouble to conform; only by cherishing his love for Ellen as a memory can he keep it. But the real tragedy is that he believes Ellen gave him a glimpse of a real life and told him to live the false one, whereas he really confused the two.