Those who broke the code weren't snubbed, one character said, they were eradicated.
Edith Wharton's New York of the 1870s was an age of manners, codes and secrets. It was a world, in her words, whose "harmony could be shattered by a whisper." Those who broke the code weren't snubbed, one character said, they were eradicated.
Men learned enough law and finance to steer the family ship. They married within the branches of New York's family tree and led lives that were infused by the politics of bloodlines. It was into this rigid structure that Wharton dropped Newland Archer, May Welland, and Countess Ellen Olenska.
At the moment that Newland announces his engagement to May, Ellen returns to town from her failed marriage to a Polish Count. Trying to shield Ellen from the gossip she has generated, the honorable Newland immediately falls in love with her. Ellen, in turn, protects Newland from himself. Of May, his innocent wife, Newland remarks "There was no use trying to emancipate a wife who had no notion that she was not free."
The core strength of Wharton's novel is the decency of each of her protagonists. Not a villain among them, each responds characteristically to the suffocating propriety of the society that controls them. Martin Scorsese has made an extravagantly beautiful movie of this world, paying loving attention to the smallest detail, even when he gets it wrong. Neither he nor his cast can be faulted, except, perhaps, by those who love the book.
Readers, undoubtedly, will wish Scorsese had chosen one of them to look over his shoulder. The pace is wrong. In a world where men "read law" and women strolled, where gossip was the currency of intimacy, the pace was studied, movement measured. A languorous camera might have evoked the feel of that world, but Scorsese films it in the fast, clipped rhythms of today.
It's o.k. for Winona Ryder's May to be innocent, but surely she must be knowing, not naive She had, after all, been trained for the job. Michelle Pfeiffer's Ellen is as honorable as she is written, but lacks the mystery that made her the one chance Newland had to touch the things that danced in his imagination.
Daniel Day-Lewis conveys with great subtlety the gentle resignation that is Newland Archer's fate. His suppression of all the passions forbidden by his culture is unbearably poignant.
Day-Lewis, Pfeiffer, Ryder and Scorsese make a powerful team that would be triumphant if Edith Wharton's skill and subtlety weren't so elusive. It's a valiant effort that just may introduce a whole new generation to the book.
Word Count: 476
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
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