The man who missed his life

Michael Wood

Nothing in Martin Scorsese’s film is quite as good as its first 15 minutes, but those 15 minutes are astonishing. You feel the movies are being invented; or at the very least that Scorsese has rediscovered a medium that has been lost since The Magnificent Ambersons. The camera pries and pulls back, sweeps and turns, picks up faces and gestures and furniture, putting itself (and us) in impossible situations. We are introduced to people and settings, we are in a theatre, we are in a ballroom. We linger over paintings, mostly depicting nasty sacrifices. We see, with a sort of embarrassment, the caked make-up of an opera-singer and the line where her coarse wig meets her forehead; then we see her audience, less painted but equally theatrical and anxious to impress. What looks like a fast panning shot across this audience turns out to be a set of stills in rapid sequence, like a deck of cards being shuffled. The ballroom is empty at first, its vast chandelier and ornate chairs covered in dustsheets. Then everything is uncovered in a quick dissolve, the music mounts, and dancers appear before us like ghosts solidifying as we look. A girl steps towards the camera, smiling, ready to greet us as if we were in the room, when a sudden reverse angle takes her away and shows us what she sees: her dapper approaching fiancé. The scene at the opera ends with the camera placed right at the front of the stage, looking at the packed opera house, its tiers of faces and eyes: the audience is the spectacle now, or we are its spectacle, caught in this monstrous, many-headed social gaze. Throughout these scenes a mocking voice-over – the voice is Joanne Woodward’s – reads some of Edith Wharton’s funniest lines (‘Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it’), which complicate and perturb the meaning of these already complicated and perturbing images. Nothing, it seems, is to escape the irony of this voice, as nothing is to escape the quirky vigilance of this camera.

This may all sound a little fussy in description, but it flows easily on the screen, and we are a long way from the restlessness, the agitated editing of most of Scorsese’s earlier movies. These images which take us further than we may want to go into intimacy, which shift the world before our eyes, this voice which names and locates and narrates in a way which suggests it is stealing our innocence rather than giving us any information, all underline the film’s fundamental suggestion: that there is no place beyond the gaze of others, that we live in a saturated and endlessly inquisitive social world. When Newland Archer, the hero of this movie and the fiancé we have just seen, says to another woman, the Countess Ellen Olenska, that he wants to get away to a place where social categories like wife and mistress won’t matter, she says to him: ‘Oh, my dear – where is that country? Have you been there?’ And when Archer’s fate is sealed, close to the end of the movie, when he has lost his love and settled for his marriage, it is done over dinner, in full view of all the guests, and without a word being spoken that is not courteous and amiable. Yet he feels ‘like a prisoner in the centre of an armed camp’. The Age of Innocence looks like a luxurious costume movie but the angles of its vision turn its very luxuries into forms of discomfort. The richest food, the gayest dances, photographed in this fashion, look like the opera-singer’s wig: a poor illusion pitilessly revealed, and just as pitilessly prolonged. The past is not a foreign country here; or at least not more foreign than the present.

The movie, like the novel, is set in New York in 1870s, and has a little epilogue in Paris. Its social world is the stuffy, intricate, righteous East Coast upper class, who think most of America is low and all of Europe is louche. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is about to be engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), whose cousin Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer) has made an unfortunate marriage to a Polish count. Ellen, in flight from marital horrors too dire for Wharton or the movie to mention, has returned to her family for solace and redirection. She is a little too unconventional for them, though – and she may have had an affair with her husband’s secretary – and the family, at first merely anxious that she should not divorce, later want her to return to the Count. Newland, as a prospective relative and also a gentleman-lawyer, explains to her why divorce is not a good idea (the scandal, and besides, what would she gain: ‘Our legislation favours divorce – our social customs don’t’), but falls in love with her in the process. Here is the crux. He loves her difference and her truthfulness, she loves his kindness, a certain delicacy in the midst of conventionality. They can’t become lovers without losing precisely what attracts them to each other, or as Ellen puts it with startling and terrible lucidity: ‘Don’t you see I can’t love you unless I give you up.’ Newland accepts this view, marries May, and lives numbedly ever after, except for one later attempt to break out and join Ellen – a faint gesture easily squashed by a conspiracy of wife, family and Ellen herself. Everyone is sure he has had and abandoned the very affair he was too scrupulous to want wholeheartedly, and he becomes one of those characters so frequent in Wharton and Henry James, the man to whom nothing has happened, who has missed his whole life, as if it was an opera he was too late for. Day-Lewis brings to this part a wonderful, tired, feeble charm, creates a perfect sense of how attractive and hopeless Newland is: subtle enough to resist the assumptions of his social set, and to suffer under them, but nowhere near tough enough to get out.

Peter Washington’s edition of The Age of Innocence is discreet and handsome, like all the new Everymans; has a chronology and a helpful and often subtle introduction. Washington reports, for example, that Wharton made a factual mistake by starting a wedding with the opening words of the burial service. Some mistake. She corrected it in later editions, but as Washington says, ‘if ever there was a Freudian slip and an involuntary authorial signature, this is it’.

The novel was first published in 1920, and it was in large part a story about time and morals, delicately poised between a feeling that its abstinences were a horrible waste of spirit and a feeling that they represented a fineness of judgment since lost to the world. They belonged, as Wharton firmly says, to an America without telephones or tunnels under the Hudson, without aeroplanes or electricity, to a time and a place where a trip across the Atlantic that took only five days was a projector’s fantasy. Do we regret or celebrate their passing? Do we applaud or bewail the new speed and laxity? Which is the age of innocence, then or now?

The movie doesn’t attend to the passage of time in this way – it leaves time to the make-up department and a few bits of patched-up narrative – but it probably couldn’t, anyway, ask us to contemplate these particular questions with any great sense of urgency. The American audience I saw this film with on my first viewing was intensely irritated by the long refusal of these people to be happy, and they have a point. ‘I can’t love you unless I give you up’: it doesn’t sound like a painful paradox now, it just doesn’t make any sense. Or rather, it won’t make sense until we find a new sense for it, as we do if we care for these characters.

They are not held apart by decorum or old New York or simple timidity, fluttering prisoners of respectability. They seem to have discovered a more ancient, more superstitious impossibility in love. They are afraid, not of the world but of love itself, of what they would become if they loved each other. Or they believe that a love like theirs could only be private, and they know there is no privacy in any world they could have. In this sense Wharton’s New York and Scorsese’s New York are the same after all, although the reasons for the destruction of privacy are different.

The theme of impossibility is what gives her novel, as John Updike suggested recently in the New Yorker, its lovely echo of La Princesse de Clèves. But in the movie the impossibility is all there is. These people love their abstinence more than they love each other, and she loves it even more than he does. It’s a great story if you can bear it. He can’t bear it. In the novel and in the movie he says: ‘It’s beyond human enduring – that’s all.’ In the novel Ellen responds in tears: ‘Oh, don’t say that; when I’m enduring it.’ In the movie she says with dry and clear-eyed calm, with a simplicity which makes his remark into mere male whimpering: ‘I’m enduring it.’

What the movie sees is the courage of renunciation. What it can’t see, what we can’t see perhaps, is the abyss of moral disgrace that Wharton keeps hinting at, the realm Ellen fled when she left her husband. At the heart of the novel is a conversation about the Gorgon of lost morality which can have no equivalent in the film. In this respect, the novel is dry-eyed where the movie seems weepy. ‘You look at things as they are,’ Newland says to Ellen:

  ‘Ah – I’ve had to. I’ve had to look at the Gorgon.’

  ‘Well – it hasn’t blinded you! You’ve seen that she’s just an old bogey like all the others.’

  ‘She doesn’t blind one; but she dries up one’s tears.’

Ellen and Newland do not finally effect their own rescue from the Gorgon’s territory: even their renunciation is not entirely their own doing, and here the novel and the movie come beautifully together again. There is another story, concerning what we might call the intelligence of convention. Ellen leaves New York, and the great non-affair is over, because she is told by Newland’s wife May that May is pregnant. She is, but she doesn’t know she is; what she knows is the effect the news will have on Ellen. Later May tells Newland (and tells him she told Ellen) and Scorsese produces a touch which is heavier and scarier, more gothic, than anything in Wharton, but quite in keeping with her mood. May rises from her chair to give Newland the glad tidings, the chair creaks and her long dress rustles in horribly magnified form on the soundtrack; the camera stays in close-up on the lower reaches of May’s dress as she gets up. It’s like a silk mountain heaving up to crush Newland, it is power that knows how powerful it is. May knows that Ellen’s gone now, and that Newland won’t follow, and in the novel her eyes are described as ‘wet with victory’. Many years later, on her deathbed, May tells their son that Newland had once, when she asked him, given up the thing he most wanted. When his son passes this on to him, Newland is aghast at his wife’s understanding and obliquity, and in a way touched by it, and helplessly says: ‘She never asked me.’ She never asked him, and he didn’t give up. He just learned, or remembered, that for him there was no country beyond convention, that the audience was everywhere, that there was no place that was not a theatre.

The casting of the movie is very strange – the characters do work together, but only in the way that clashing styles can work together, and the clashes are not always happy. Scorsese’s own directing style gets a little erratic too, and some of the effects and angles come to look merely random. The soupy music, all cellos and sorrow, seems to belong to another movie altogether. Day-Lewis represents what the movie seems to want when it wants to stay close to Wharton; he is sober, understated, often touching. Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t look as if she’s come from an unhappy European marriage, she looks as if she’s been playing Cat Woman once or twice too often, and her accent, which I can’t place, suggests some kind of contrast of class rather than of moral habitat. Her walk and her manners suggest the same. Still, all this creates a story between her and Day-Lewis, and she has all the best lines – (when she asks him, early in their acquaintance, if he’s very much in love with May, he replies: ‘As much as a man can be.’ She says quite solemnly: ‘Do you think there’s a limit?’). She says these lines with unflinching intelligence too, clearly aware of the pain and abnegation they contain, and her large eyes and pale, stretched skin make her seem more vulnerable, less playful than Wharton suggests her heroine is. More damaged, and damageable; closer to the end of her tether.

Winona Ryder has an impossible task: that of being a charming ingénue who is also, without batting an eyelid, a Machiavellian politician. I don’t see how it could be done in performance, and the novel in any case is ambiguous and unresolved about May. Wharton hesitates between endorsing Newland’s patronising view of his wife’s limitations and suggesting he’s got her all wrong. The movie leaves us in no doubt. He has misjudged her entirely, failed to see not only the strength of her conventionality but also its subtlety and range, what it can take in as well as what it excludes. In the movie, he is not only a man who misses his life, but a man who misses all the clues to the way his life will be taken from him; misses too, in the absorption of his romance and his self-pity, what it means to love someone so much you won’t give them up. Ryder does what she can with all this, she is bright and quick and engaging, but in the end there are just two stories here, one in her manner and another in the plot, or one for two hours of the movie and another for five minutes. She is the dim young thing that Newland and the narrator think she is (‘she had died thinking the world a good place, full of loving and harmonious households like her own’), until the sudden switch comes. Then she is the awesome infant matriarch, the enveloping mother who knows that no one, least of all a husband, ever gets away.