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Alex Callinicos


Innocent parties

(March 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Age of Innocence
Dir: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is one of the most intelligent and accomplished film makers alive. So when he directs an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence you can be sure it won’t be the kind of elegant coffin in which Merchant-Ivory films suffocate the novels they are based on.

In its way, the story of how the passion Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) develops for the unsuitable Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) is subtly but effectively thwarted by the New York high society of the 1870s is as brutal a tale as any of the films Scorsese has made about low life in the city a hundred years later – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, GoodFellas. Only here the weapons through which a closed and repressive society enforces its rules are not the gangster’s fist or knife or gun but the placement of guests around a table, or notes refusing an invitation, or an after dinner conversation over cigars. The scene where Archer’s wife May (Winona Ryder) reveals to him that she has used a chat at tea with Olenska to separate the lovers forever is a brilliant example of this kind of refined brutality.

Scorsese uses the techniques he learned from the avant garde French film makers of the 1960s and from his other heroes like the British director Michael Powell – jump cuts, crane shots, the sudden enveloping of the screen in one colour – to reveal a society tightly bound by elaborate ritual.

The Age of Innocence is a superb and fascinating film, whose opening scenes especially carry a terrific punch, which had me often laughing with exhilaration. The three principal performances are excellent. Nevertheless, I found the second half of the film, which concentrates on Archer’s and Olenska’s doomed love affair, less successful than the first.

One reason for this is that though Scorsese is a very passionate film director it doesn’t seem as if sexual passion really engages his imagination. Sex and love have generally played a fairly peripheral part in his other films, which usually have been about conflicts among men. This doesn’t mean Scorsese is a sexist director – on the contrary. Olenska’s plight as a woman is depicted with great sympathy. It’s simply that he isn’t at his best handling desire.

There is, however, a deeper difficulty with the film, which can be brought out by comparing it with two of the films which inspired Scorsese in making it – Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. Both of these are insider’s views of the decline of an aristocratic society. This gives these films a note of elegy, the occasional echoes of which in The Age of Innocence – which seeks to revive a dead world from the outside – are rather artificial.

More importantly, Welles and Visconti were dealing with big subjects. Ambersons is about the impact of industrialisation on American society, symbolised by the rise of the motor car. Visconti’s reconstruction of Sicilian aristocratic life in the 1860s is even more elaborate than Scorsese’s – the ball scene in The Leopard lasts for an hour in the full version of the film. But he uses this scene, and the film as a whole, to explore in great depth a gigantic historical process – Italy’s reunification through a combination of revolutionary struggle from below and compromise at the top between the old aristocracy and new bourgeoisie. There is a kind of disproportion, by comparison, between the technical brilliance of Scorsese’s film and the sad little love story it tells.

But, for all that, The Age of Innocence fails only by the very highest of standards.

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