By Owen Gleiberman
September 17, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

The camera glides through a voluptuous high-ceilinged chamber swathed in paintings, drapes, bouquets-a veritable jungle of finery. Then, slowly, with a practiced ease not unlike that of the men in their white-tie tuxedos and the women in their flowing ballgowns, it moves into another room, and then another. A narrator, in serene, cultivated tones, describes the invisible rituals that are being enacted beneath all this moneyed splendor. As we soon learn, the lack of any apparent scandal is itself a scandal-a lie, a cozy hypocrisy. Is it our imagination, or is the narrator gently mocking everything she describes? Even after you’ve adjusted to the idea of Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, Cape Fear) directing a costume drama, you may not be prepared to enter the luxuriantly strange and subtle universe of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (PG). Based on Edith Wharton’s classic 1920 novel about a thwarted love affair, the movie is set among the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s-an American aristocracy, patterned after the European one of old but marked by a Puritan fervor that is strictly homegrown. The characters in The Age of Innocence almost never say what they’re thinking. Instead, they allude to it-playfully, elliptically, maliciously, in language contrived not to seem the least bit ”unpleasant.” Within those lush, resplendent rooms, the conversation is a series of lethally elegant signifiers. The hero, a young lawyer named Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), has led a life of such meticulous propriety that he has almost no idea where the customs of society leave off and his own personality begins. Early on, Newland ! announces his engagement to May Welland (Winona Ryder), a pretty and thoroughly shallow society girl who should be the ideal companion for a man like himself. ”In our country,” he boasts, ”we don’t allow our marriages to be arranged,” but in a sense Newland’s whole life has been arranged. He has never made a decision based completely on his own instincts. All this changes when he is reacquainted with his fiancee’s cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), now a countess fleeing her marriage to a European nobleman. Ellen, it is rumored, took a lover while her marriage failed, and so her separation is tinged with scandal. Ordered by his law firm (because of his family connection) to counsel her against a divorce, which would result in her estrangement from New York society, Newland finds himself drawn to the countess with a kind of primal romantic fervor. He is of the old order but intoxicated by the new-the sensual, free-spirited Ellen, the one woman he has ever met who dares speak her mind. And Ellen is drawn to the very spark of life she awakens in Newland. Contemporary audiences, raised on the supreme emotional logic of love conquering all, may feel a tug of disbelief at the notion that this love is an impossibility. After all, why can’t Newland and Ellen simply chuck everything and escape together? The complex answer is that, in a society as controlled as this one, a conspiracy of forces-both external and internal-arrays itself against any passion that proclaims itself as free. Ellen understands that she could end up destitute-that is, be cast out to ”find her own level.” And Newland, for all his ardor, has a desire for convention that runs through his veins. Up through its first half, The Age of Innocence is a masterfully orchestrated tale of romantic yearning. Hypnotic visuals aside, the true signature of Scorsese’s art has always been the way his characters pulsate with life. Here, lingering on his actors’ faces even as he embraces the inhuman perfection of objects (the dinnerware is like civilized weaponry), he works in a more sensuous version of the Merchant-Ivory drawing-room style. It helps to have such a dream cast. Michelle Pfeiffer has grown into perhaps our greatest romantic actress. In The Age of Innocence, she uses her radiant stare and mellifluously suggestive voice to create a portrait of a woman who, in a quiet revolt against her time, has come to believe that love is the highest form of spirituality. As Newland, Day-Lewis moves through the film on tiny ripples of sadness, compassion, and wit. If the flat, handsome planes of his face don’t always reveal much, that’s because the whole point of this performance is that Newland appears as ordinary to himself as he does to us. Among the other performers, most notable are Miriam Margolyes as the corpulent matriarch Mrs. Mingott, whose jocular nonchalance masks an authoritarian’s soul, and Winona Ryder as the girlishly callow-but never as gullible as she seems-May. For all its artistry, however, The Age of Innocence isn’t entirely successful. As Newland and Ellen separate, only to find themselves reunited in fleeting (platonic) liaisons, the events become at once scattered and distant. Wharton wrote one of the most devastating of all American novels: It begins as a love story and turns into a claustrophobic tragedy, a Jamesian Night of the Living Dead. In the film, the problem isn’t so much that the scenario is too chilly but that we aren’t made to feel the chill. Scorsese and coscreenwriter Jay Cocks would have been wise to drop a few of the later incidents and linger more over the dramatic texture. As it is, the second half of The Age of Innocence comes at us in so many bits and pieces that it fails to achieve the overwhelming sense of loss that is the story’s driving emotion. When Newland finally walks away from Madame Olenska’s window, resigned to dreams of a life he never had, we grasp his tragedy, but in our heads rather than our hearts. B+