Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993) is showing December 17, 2017 - January 16, 2018 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
Unrequited love is tragic, like an empty party; unconsummated love is worse—it's senseless like a sinkhole or a flat soufflé. That two people should love each other equally and still not be happy or together is the problem Martin Scorsese worries over in his 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.
The film opens in an opera—a nod to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), a swoony film that also takes a bleak look at high society. But while that film has flourishes and cultivates dizziness, The Age of Innocence is about a love that cannot be expressed, and the pained, stately movements of non-lovers that must navigate a life apart.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Newland Archer, a well-bred lawyer engaged to socialite May Welland—Winona Rider plays her with an enameled, unmoving sweetness, as steely and luminous as a pearl. She is the coolest customer in the film, the best character and the one with the fewest lines. For intrigue, there is Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Olenska—back in town from Europe, fleeing her husband and, shockingly, contemplating divorce. Predictably, although almost imperceptibly, she catches Newland’s attention—but a promise is a promise and May is promised to Newland. It’s all very sad.
A Scorsese costume drama, coming as it did in the wake of Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), will always seem odd, or at least deliberately left-field. Scorsese could hardly have been unaware of the anticipations surrounding his work: violence, machismo, and a certain lurid, over-ripeness. The Age of Innocence seems calculated to rework the director's image—a showy show of range. The result is several strange, strangled moments that are like halted Scorsese-isms: Newland flicks his pen with such vehemence it looks like a switchblade, or when the narrator remarks, casually, that Newland fantasizes about his wife’s untimely death. The biggest twist in the film is when you realize how clueless the infamous woman really is, and how calculating is her virginal counterpart. Except, the twist is delivered with such solemnity it's more like a ten-point turn.
Tragedy, I learned in high school English, requires a fall; and perhaps that is why there is something uneasy about The Age of Innocence—there is no fall. Falling is euphoric, even as you get closer to the ground, and The Age of Innocence is concerned with stasis. The lovers will never have a moment of emotive expression—a luxury, in 1890s New York, only afforded to opera singers and fallen women.
It's easy to see how this predicament could seem rich enough to film, especially to a director as intricate and obsessive as Scorsese, but the problem is how to film frustrated romance without yourself becoming frustrating. The Age of Innocence is, obviously, gorgeous; before ever seeing it I heard anecdotes about the attention lavished on every detail. Utensils, dances, gowns: all are re-created and re-enacted lovingly. Perhaps this is the crux of the film: it plays as a re-enactment, while a great film should have the animation of life. There is something waxen and dull here—and I am not mistaking subtlety for tediousness. Scorsese simply tried to do something impossible: express an inability to express.