With Victorian calligraphy as background for the blooming flowers during the credits, to the first scenes inside an opera house wherein Gounod’s Faust is being staged, to the next set of views touring a 1870s New York mansion overflowing with art and manikins, viewers still wonder: is this a Martin Scorsese picture? Based on Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence would otherwise seem the atmospherics for Ivory and Merchant, or the deluxe visions of Visconti or John De Cuir, and there’s an undeniable resemblance to Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, without its felicity. Made in honor of William Wyler’s The Heiress, and designed by Dante Ferretti, A of I is Scorsese finally delivering his fancy feast—splashes as layouts from Architectural Digest and Gourmet—and we could get woozy and have to hit the smelling salts. He picked the right Wharton material for his second (New York, New York the first) foray into American period piece: his lovers are ruled by class snobbery not too distant from the sociopaths and goons who rule in his charged-up contemporary American landscapes. The central difference: there aren’t any bloodbaths as pornography, though the lavish spreads here are rather porno-ish in their money shots of the 1%’s arbitrariness. A major part of Wharton’s stratagem: pressuring her main characters to accept social dictums, she traps them in orgies of addictive lushness. And Wharton more than most: born in France, she lived the exceedingly pampered life of high social class New York and Europe. (Like Mark Twain before her and F. Scott Fitzgerald after, she did much of her writing in the comfort of her bed. Once, when discovering a hotel room bed didn’t face natural light, she flew into a “fit of hysterics.”) The first woman to win a Pulitzer and receive an honorary degree from Yale, Wharton would perform, often at her chateau in Hyeres, readings of her works-in-progress to Henry James and French novelist Paul Bourget, specialists in the psychological. Both protégé of and traveling companion to James, she used his novel The Bostonians as foundation for A of I, replicating not so much his prose style but his biting annotations interlaced into the narrative. Her work, though, isn’t an analytical study of romance unconsummated—it’s about high society poison, about hypocrisy over values, relinquishing ourselves to others’ unearned demands of imperatives we want to reject but fearing to be locked out in achieving social approval. In Maugham, biographer Ted Morgan writes Somerset “was exasperated by the rightness and exactness of everything Wharton said,” and particularly out of joint by her usage of “no,” for he “had never heard a more frigid syllable of disapproval.” This may be the essence of Wharton as social prisoner, an abject failure in love: she was likely poisoned by her mother’s frigidness, which helped make her the anti-feminist she appeared to be in opposing education of women for high professions, not exercising her right to vote, and rarely if ever inviting other women to her soirées. (A recent biographer suggests she was both homophobic and anti-Semitic, and disapproved of Joyce and Lawrence; one wonders to what degree she was aware of James’ predilections.) The Victorian vengeance in her story telling is regrettable—she’s compulsive about sanctioning lovers, having punished them in Ethan Frome, too. The only touch of modernity Scorsese risks is allowing the unfulfilled love between Newland Archer and Countess Ellen Olenska to anger us, as we’re more than eager to flaunt contempt for social conspiracies, dictates and sacrifices. (We want to shout, “Says who?!”) Watching Daniel Day-Lewis’ Newland assume the old snob rules and expectations, forfeiting passion and gentlemanly moving on, fosters wimpiness when it’s really Wharton’s vindictiveness. In the minority, I think Day-Lewis isn’t quite suited for the role. Wouldn’t call him less than adequate, and he’s one of few actors who has the uncanny ability to transmogrify into character. Yet he’s mostly unaffecting here; endlessly posing, he’s too self-satisfied with his handsome portraiture and the way Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus defer to him confirms his “art” is in being the movies’ most accomplished con. Michelle Pfeiffer’s more successful in getting us to believe she belongs in antique melodrama. Her voice is key: it has the shrill pitch that happens to women of leisure who resign, though not privately accept, they’re chattel to be displayed as possessions. Her Olenska has a bit of Wharton coursing through, as the novelist was strapped in a loveless marriage, and she’s homage to James’ Verena in The Bostonians—the feminist spitfire caught in the war between “tragic, visibly morbid” Olive and her cousin the “fine headed, magnificent eyed” Basil. Out of Dickens and Aunt Pittypat from GWTW, Miriam Margolyes provides a few laughs as moneybags Mrs. Manson Mingott. Chubby in face, Mary Beth Hurt’s nearly unrecognizable as Mrs. Beaufort. As her cad husband, Stuart Wilson’s doing tribute to Steiger’s Komarovsky from Doctor Zhivago. And there’s repellent Winona Ryder as breathless May pulling a coup de théâtre as despised entrapment. Catching Wharton’s gilded spider’s web, Time critic Jay Cocks shapes the envenom into a screenplay exalting the power of words; it’s thrilling to hear text captured with this much respect. And elating to see art brought to life—with images recalling Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” and winter scenes by Richard Hartmann and Childe Hassam. There’s a happy marriage of editing and text: Thelma Schoonmaker (whose name is plastered as advertisement on a building) lays on montages of messages and invitations reminding us of the lost art of personal dispatch. We’re even served the Wharton hors d’oeuvres—deliciously voiced over by Joanne Woodward as parenthetical gossip whispered for our ears only.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2008 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.