Personal Pantheon: The Age of Innocence – 1993

“You gave me my first glimpse of a real life. Then you asked me to go on with the false one.”

Martin Scorsese said once that he considers “The Age of Innocence,” his 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about forbidden love and the rigidness of New York aristocracy in the 1870’s, to be his most violent film. That’s saying something for the man behind the blood-soaked masterpieces such as “Goodfellas” and “Taxi Driver.” What Scorsese is referring to is emotional violence, which there was plenty of in New York high society at the time, unwilling to break free from the bonds of European expectations.

But in this story of forbidden love, guilt and trying and failing to break free from a mob-like social system, Scorsese crafts one of his greatest films, one that actually fits into his filmography like a finely powdered glove even though it looks like a Masterpiece Theatre-aping outlier on first glance. Why was Scorsese the perfect choice for this material? Because he understands how high and low classes of people, particularly in New York, abuse and collide with each other. There isn’t a syllable of profanity, a single drop of blood or bullet fired in this film, which works as an uptown companion piece with “Goodfellas.” But these unpaved streets can be just as mean.

Newland Archer (the peerless Daniel Day-Lewis) seems to have it all figured out. He’s a successful lawyer and he’s about to be married to May Welland (Winona Ryder) the perfectly pleasant heiress to another branch of the aristocratic tree. He is content to spend the rest of his days immersed in his countless books, trips to the opera house, annual balls and the streams of gossip that make teenage girls look infinitely respectful of discretion in comparison. But a pale, blue-eyed lightning bolt is about to strike this small, impenetrable universe in the person of Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer in her finest hour), who has just fled Europe and the tyrannical count she married in the hopes of being welcomed back by her family, which of course sends ripples of scandal through the upper crust. Ellen is a free thinker, with a clear idea of what she wants with an admittedly naive understanding of how her behavior affects her family.

Newland is instantly captivated by her; we get a sense that he’s growing tired of the minutia that dominates the lives of this aristocracy, and Ellen is the manifestation of everything he wants to express but can’t. Ellen lights a romantic fire in him that May, however innocent and safe she may be, does not. His attraction to her is organic, not another piece of familial business.

This may sound like “First World Problems: 1870s Edition.” And one may wonder why a director who makes movies about criminal underworlds and unchecked male aggression would be so interested in the delicate business Wharton’s novel dealt with. But the brilliance of Scorsese’s adaptation, which he co-wrote with Jay Cocks, is that this story fits his auteurist characteristics perfectly. The aristocracy isn’t far removed from the Mob families in “Mean Streets” or “Goodfellas.”  They distrust outsiders, they are lorded over by their own version of the Five Families, with Mrs. Mingot (played by the great Miriam Margolyes) as a corpulent Don Corleone who is the perfect grandmother on the surface but is utterly ruthless underneath the jewelry and pomeranians. Their stuffy adherence to being proper does little to mask their lack of mercy when it comes to radical practices like divorce, speaking out of turn, etc.

In that way, Newland Archer isn’t too far off from Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” They may be polar opposites in personality and temperament, but they are both men who slowly realize that the world that protects them is indeed a prison. Henry gets out due to selfishness and saving his own ass, but Newland’s awakening is spurred on by his burning desire for Ellen, which begins as a curious attraction and morphs into all-consuming love that consumes his tempered nature, like nothing before. “The Age of Innocence” isn’t a spiritual cousin of “Goodfellas” just in theme, but also in form. The latter film is often cited as Scorsese’s stylistic showpiece, but “Age” is just as stylish, with Michael Ballhaus’ camera swirling and observing like an unseen character, with splashes of yellow and the trademark blood red enveloping the screen to create a film that transcends any and all period-piece stereotypes to create something truly alive, perhaps the most emotionally expressive filmmaking Scorsese has ever done. It’s got all the trademarks; the camera glides like a dancer over every scene, Thelma Schoonmaker’s peerless editing creates a whirlwind of imagery, Elmer Bernstein’s moving score has an air of tragedy underneath those groaning cellos and in a masterstroke of narrative technique, there is voice-over narration from Joanne Woodward, who drops in and reads passages from the book, adding to the foreignness of this world, and how vital it is for Newland and Ellen to make their own way through it.

The narration could’ve been a deadly gambit, but voiceover perfectly suits Scorsese’s style, with his use of fragmented editing and montage. It’s reminiscent of the narration in Orson Welles’ “Magnificent Ambersons” in how it captures the melancholy. But for all the bravura flourishes and subtle wit with how Scorsese and Wharton make fun of the painfully trivial dinner conversations these people have, this is a story of three people on different sections of the complacency spectrum. Day-Lewis (the best actor alive, in my opinion) slowly builds Newland’s disregard for his universe. He never has to raise his voice to get across the guilt, frustration and aching sadness that builds up within him. Subtle gestures define him; the emptiness in his smile whenever he is intimate with May contrasts with the passion in his eyes whenever he is with Ellen. Day-Lewis can disappear into an exaggerated character better than anyone, but his naturalistic approach is the antithesis of his more operatic performances in “Gangs of New York” and “There Will Be Blood,” and all the more effective for it. We see a man who starts to feel trapped by the oversized ballrooms and perfectly tailored suits.

It’s understandable how one would be willing to throw a life away for the Countess Olenska (the prototypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl), especially in this environment. Pfeiffer is brilliant in capturing what is alluring about Ellen; her independence, her amusement over how pointless this lifestyle really is, her disinterest in making sure she has everyone’s approval. But she also nails what is flawed about this woman; the aristocracy game is rigged, especially with women seeking a divorce, forcing Ellen to depend on those who despise her for financial support, especially when her estranged husband makes attempts at buying her back. She’s like Harvey Keitel’s epileptic girlfriend in “Mean Streets;” kept in chains by the ruling party because of her differences. At first she tries to resist Newland’s pining, out of respect for her cousin May. But she can’t resist, as she finally has someone who is just as self-aware and beyond the New York environment as she is. Their passion finally manifests physically, in a beautiful scene in a claustrophobic carriage where Newland takes one of her cloves off and gently kisses her exposed hand; it’s the most erotic display of affection these two can share under these circumstances. Newland asks her to run away with him where gossip and propriety mean nothing, to which she responds “Where is that country?” Newland thinks he can ease his passion for Ellen by moving up his wedding date with May, but he knows deep down this may be fruitless.

Those watching this for the first time may be put off by Ryder’s performance as May, but as the story unfolds you realize how deliberate the more annoying qualities about May; her ever-present smile, her disinterest in anything outside of her immediate worldview, the overbearing wide-eyed innocence that emanates from how she speaks, looks, etc., really are. Newland and May tell themselves their marriage isn’t arranged, but this is a fool’s errand. Newland definitely cares for May, and he tries to leave her out of his personal turmoil. But May isn’t as dumb as she looks; she’s a product of this restrictive environment, and as we learn that May has a final turn of the screw that ruins Newland’s dreams for freedom and reveals a near Machiavellian cunning. Ryder’s performance grows in power as this 1% Mafia basically “whacks” this romantic dissent, underlining the cold irony of the film’s title.

All of this culminates in one of the best scenes in any Scorsese movie; an older Newland is in Paris with his oldest son Ted (Robert Sean Leonard), who is about to be married. He tells Newland that before May died, she told him that the children were safe with Newland, “once when she asked you to, you gave up the thing you wanted most.” Newland responds simply: “She never asked me.” This emotional crescendo is underlined by the final shot, with Newland once more walking away from the possibility of true love, on that overcast street in Paris.

“The Age of Innocence” is one of the great modern romances because unlike the virulent sickness that is Nicholas Sparks, this is a tragic love story with adult concerns, that isn’t wrapped up in bromides or cheap tear-jerking. This film is as vibrant and emotionally bruising as Martin Scorsese’s more celebrated work because it too is a collision between desire and duty, an expose of an idealic world that is only idealic if you leave your beating heart at the door, and gunfire is replaced by whispers.

 

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Catching Up With: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – 1943

Along with Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, perhaps the filmmakers that have had the greatest influence on movies over the past 50 years have been Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. But sometimes it feels like not enough contemporary film buffs know a lot about them. Maybe its because they operated in England, free from the Hollywood system and rarely working with the stars of the time, putting artful storytelling and formal ingenuity over satiating the masses.

But even if you aren’t familiar with their work, you will definitely sense some familiarity in their best work. Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg and countless others have drunk deeply from the “Archers'” deep creative well, with their gorgeous camerawork, innovative editing and storytelling techniques, and that they were unafraid to let overwhelming darkness and tragedy permeate stories that may appear familiar at the surface. “The Red Shoes,” a dark fairy tale in the world of ballet that contains perhaps the greatest scene in the history of movies (the 20-minute dance sequence) has flourishes that have shown up in nearly every Scorsese film, and the final 20 minutes of  the psycho-sex drama with nuns that is “Black Narcissus” has been co-opted by countless horror movies.

But I think one of the most difficult things to portray in movies is, well…life. Life can be so abstract, so mercurial and so complicated that it’s a Herculean task to even distill one life into a fictional narrative. But 1943’s “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” has the Archers taking a swing at the concept, detailing the triumphs and heartbreak that defined Clive Candy (Roger Livesey, nothing short of amazing), who over 40 years fought in three wars, had and lost the love of his life and went from a swaggering romantic to a bloated, antiquated caricature of English rigidness (the movie’s title is taken from an old  British comic-strip detailing a similar character). The result is an extraordinary achievement, a three-hour epic that doesn’t feel bloated, with wit and compassion replacing hot air and self-seriousness.

“War starts at midnight.” That’s the refrain repeated to a group of British soldiers undergoing a training exercise during World War II. But when one of the soldiers decides to storm a Turkish bath house where several officers, including Candy, are relaxing, to prove the point that the enemy won’t follow any rules; this is “total war,” the Germans won’t wait until midnight in some traditional adherence to rules. This sentiment is lost on Candy; endowed with an enormous gut, a laughable walrus mustache, and a melodramatic way of speaking (Candie’s appearance may have hit close to home with Winston Churchill, who tried to have the film banned). The young soldier pities this military lifer gone to seed, but Candy tells him that he doesn’t know anything; we find out that Candy;’s life wasn’t always defined by rules or his pitiful appearance.

The film then goes back to 1902,  and we see another young soldier, fighting the Boer War in South Africa,  in the same bath house belittling another wizened officer. It takes us a minute to realize this soldier; dashing, impossibly brash with a deep, commanding voice that hadn’t yet become a joke, is the younger Clive Candy, still being played by Livesey (the make-up in this movie is astonishing, putting many modern films to shame). Here is a soldier fueled by optimism, not a desperate adherence to the temple of rules and order. He isn’t afraid to go to Berlin and play mind games with former German POWs, and there he meets two people who will bot enrich his life and cast a pall of tragedy and regret over it; British diplomat Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr, brilliant in three different roles) who he immediately falls in love with, and German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), whom Candy befriends after dueling with him.

Over the next 40 years, Candy will fight in three wars, lose his youthful swagger in increments, have his friendship with Theo tested by the madness of war, and be forever haunted by the woman who stole his heart. But Powell and Pressburger keep “Blimp” from being a navel-gazing dirge; it’s almost symphonic in how it creates a Technicolor world where the hopeful future and the mournful past can exist side-by-side, just like how the Archers’ singular wit and dedicated, ingenious approach to storytelling, buoyed by the constantly moving camera and bravura performances from the three leads.

Roger Livesey’s performance is a masterpiece unto itself (btw, Michael Fassbender’s performance in “Inglourious Basterds” is basically an extended Livesey imitation). Clive Candy begins as an action hero, a figure so dashing that he makes Clark Gable look like Peter Lorre, but as his hairline recedes and his waistline expands, he becomes a more serious cross between Churchill and King Lear (but without the madness or daughter issues). There are few characters that I can recall who are this complex, this empathetic, this human. He isn’t afraid to befriend Theo, played by Walbrook as a man who’s strength and confidence improve over the years as much as his English does.  He is immediately taken with the intelligent, headstrong Edith, but in a decision that will define the rest of his life, he leaves Edith, who stays in Germany and marries Theo, who confesses his love for her.

“Col. Blimp” is defined by Candy’s life and his relationship with the world around him through the prism of war, his friendship with Theo and the women in his life; his meekish wife Barbara and later on his determined, prodigal driver Johnny, who are both played by the same actress who played Edith; the great Deborah Kerr. Kerr miraculously makes all three of these women distinct, and in yet another display of storytelling genius, the Archers hit the point home that Candy is haunted by Edith by literally seeing her face on every woman he sees; the gamble of having the same actress playing three very different characters is both charming and heartbreaking in its execution.

Candy’s friendship with Theo is one of the reasons this film, constructed as a piece of pro-British war propaganda (damn is this film British; there are passages, especially in the first 10 minutes, that channel Monty Python 30 years beforehand), was hit with some controversy; it made a German officer an empathetic man with a soul, who in these three wars is Candy’s rival, his sworn enemy, and finally his only hope for protection after he loses everything, respectively. This is one of the great stories of male friendship, writ large on a global scale, with its wisdom and humanity firmly intact.

Candie is such a fascinating and empathetic character that “Life and Death of Col. Blimp” hardly needs any musings on the evolution of war, the roles romance and friendship play in it, and how youthful exuberance can crumble into elderly doddering. At the beginning of the movie, you might be on the side of the young soldier, ridiculing this outdated relic. But after completing the lifetime journey with Livesey as Candy, and marveling at the symphonic collusion of Powell and Pressburger’s achievement, with the writing, filmmaking and acting working perfectly in sync, it’s impossible to miss Candy’s soul still buried under the prosthetics; tested, eroded, but still fighting the good fight.

Grade: A+