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

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

So they just decide to not meet and leave it at that! What was the point of this movie/book - I wonder :-)

Havent read the book nor seen the movie - but the story seems hardly inspiring to warrant a read/watch. So will probably give this a skip...

Abhishek Bandekar said...

So they just decide to not meet and leave it at that! What was the point of this movie/book - I wonder :-)

Havent read the book nor seen the movie - but the story seems hardly inspiring to warrant a read/watch.


Well you might as well stay away from Brokeback Mountain, The End Of The Affair and In The Mood For Love as well. The gravity of a love affair and the passion in the relationship is not a quantifiable entity that can be tangibly judged by the acquisition of its primary subject. There is a type of 'love' that transcends the need to 'acquire', that transcends the trap of 'belonging'. A love that remains, without having to 'advertise' it or 'sanction' it with a societal seal.

Our greatest loves are anyways that which we rarely find. And if you are among the lucky ones that do, hang on to it tight and never let it go!

About the review, this is a mighty fine review of a book and film that I'm a very big fan of. While I do not agree with the critique that Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer lack chemistry; it is besides the point when the review is so superlatively brilliant. The language, especially the elaboration of Wharton's exquisite style and Scorsese's expansive filmmaking, almost act like a parallel to the grand eloquence of the text and the vast opulence of the cinematographic film.

Arwa said...

just like the book and the film, your review is also a sumptuous feast.... of thoughts and words! loved it... :)

Sandhya Iyer said...

Thanks Abzee, Arwa.

Anonymous said...

>>The gravity of a love affair and the passion in the relationship is not a quantifiable entity that can be tangibly judged by the acquisition of its primary subject

:-). In true life maybe the above is true - but in a book.....its a waste of time imo. I would rather read a Gone with the Wind - where the characters have spunk. This seems to signify more wimpness in the characters - as sketched by the author. And ya I would most definitely avoid the movies that you mentioned Abhishek - by a mile....

>>A love that remains, without having to 'advertise' it or 'sanction' it with a societal seal.

Hmmm - this to me is a defeatist statement to the core. The kind of love you mention above is more applicable to parental love. To a pragmatist - the above sounds just a waste of time - someone who rather lives in their dreams than in reality. Anyway to each his own - but thanks for the list of movies/books that I will avoid for sure ;-)

Sandhya Iyer said...

"This seems to signify more wimpness in the characters - as sketched by the author."

Anon- This is actually something that a lot of critics have mentioned. The truth is that characters like Newland Archer exist in real life. They are cowardly, unable to rebel against existing norms...and so on. By doing so, Edith Wharton successfully projects the sort of society they belonged to - one that laid excessive emphasis on appearances and propriety. Newland is made of sterner stuff, but not bold enough to rebel. This is a perfectly plausible character. But I agree that in a film or literature, we are conditioned to see our male leads as heroes. Anything less, and we see them as whimps. There is something frustrating about Archer for sure, but that's because it's probably closer to relaity.
Personally, Age Of Innocence - even though in essense is a beautiful story - I wouldn't say it's my favourite in terms of characters or even the way the love story evolves. I've said in my review too that I don't find the May-Archer or the Ellen-Archer relationships the most convincing ones. But the underlying thought behind the story is a very poignant, touching one.