25 February 2010

The Age Of Innocence (classic on celluloid)

Of all that which could have been!

When director Martin Scorsese took up the task of adapting Edith Wharton's tender, romantic classic The Age of Innocence in 1993, many thought it a rather odd choice for the maker of such male-oriented films such as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, Mean Streets among others. But according to the filmmaker this was his 'most violent film' referring to the emotional verses physical state of being.

Wharton wrote her novel in 1920, a good 40-50 years from the period in which The Age Of Innocence is set in. The author brings to life her own close-knit, upper-class New York society, with its conservatism, artificiality and stagnancy. It's a world where America's select elites wined and dined and outwardly lived a very charmed life. Here reputations had to be fiercely guarded and a single whisper could lead to slander and misfortune. And yet, it was an age Edith was nostalgic about and she brings out this sentiment through one of her characters --- "there was good in the old ways"
In fact, the very reason she chose to write the novel was because her sense of calm and security had been destroyed after the first world war. She needed the comfort of nostalgia. Many critics found it an irrelevant subject, but The Age Of Innocence was probably one last chance for Edith to live through the momories of her youth and bring alive a time that seemed lost forever.

Edith Wharton's story is then about a passionate, illicit affair that is born in such a circumstance. But the hold of this society on the individual is so strong, its roots so entrenched, its customs and codes so impenetrable, that passion is ultimately sacrificed at the altar of convention. When the story begins Archer Newland is soon to be engaged to May Welland - popularly understood to be a perfect young woman with unreproachable repute. This picture perfect world is challenged with the coming of May's European cousin, Ellen Olenska, an aesthetic and free-spirited woman who becomes the talk of the town. Her presence is a source of mingled contempt and envy for the denizens around. Her broken marriage to a Count and her 'fallen' status makes for spicy dinner table gossip. Archer gets attracted to Ellen as he finds something very real about her.
In complete contrast is his financee May - who becomes almost a metaphor for all the shallowness and silliness that he starts to hate about his society. But his affair with Ellen does not last and both decide to bow down to conventional wisdom. They silently continue to love each other, even while leading their individual lives. When an opportunity to meet each other arises after many years, both give it up because as Archer says "it is like a pilgrimage that had been attained"
Meeting each other seems immaterial now.

If Wharton's novel is a feast of words, Scorsese's adaptation is a feast of sumptuous visuals. The film - through its marvelous art design - captures the period to perfection. The succulent food spreads in the affluent homes, the elaborate d├ęcor, luxuriant drawing rooms, the exquisite glass wares.. all lend an unbelievable sense of grandness and authenticity to this period piece.

The film is also one of the most faithful adaptations of the novel. In fact, the director uses an elderly woman as the narrator of the story and this is implied to be Edith Wharton herself. One of the chief attractions of the novel is that its language perfectly matches the ornamental world it describes. The sentences are all delicately crafted, with many succinct observations.
"Clever liars give details, but the cleverest do not"
"In the rotation of crops, there was a recogonised season to sow wild oats, but they were not to be sown more than once"
I'm not sure if these were included in the film, but Scorsese makes sure to take some of the best dialogues from the book, and use it to maximum effect.

The theme of the novel largely points at absurdity of human life, being compelled into action that the mind does not agree with. The one issue I had with the film was the pairing of Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. Though good actors, they have very little chemistry between them.
Winona Ryder, as the passive-aggressive May is good though.
The film never scales the emotional peaks of the book, but it remains a lush, beautiful and admirable effort nevertheless.

- Sandhya Iyer