Gossip, scandal, society…these are topics that annoy me at worst, and are of little consequence at best. As such, a film related almost entirely to such topics is difficult for me to stomach, though not quite so difficult as the dry, detached, overly purple and incessantly descriptive but flavourless writing that it usually comes from. Strangely, it is usually circling romance like a vulture, pecking away at love and turning it inside out and vile, the opinions of others and societal customs tearing away chunks of it for reasons that are, on some level, utterly beyond me. This makes for a somewhat confusing experience as a half-closeted romantic. While I am engaged by the romance of such a story, I am repulsed by the imbecilic and unnecessary machinations that surround it. I am annoyed at the way characters take such passing opinions and actions as the greater valued occurrence than the emotion they feel for one another, yet at the same time find some appreciation in the fact that in a backward way this ends up an almost open criticism of that exact attitude.
So it is with mixed feelings that I approach this film, by one of my most favourite directors, possibly my absolute favourite. I do like many of the actors involved–Daniel Day-Lewis, playing Newland Archer, is a strangely unrecognized chameleonic actor, Michelle Pfeiffer is the first actress I admitted some attraction to in my youth (the context of which I will not elucidate here, but suffice it to say, this was a random grab under pressure), Winona Ryder…well, she is usually interesting enough, Jonathan Pryce is always fun, from Brazil to Something Wicked This Way Comes, Michael Gough has a vague history with Tim Burton (portraying one of the more definitive depictions of Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth)–but it’s difficult to separate the elements of a plot like this that I dislike. Performances by most are quite good, though Day-Lewis is a bit unusually wooden (though this might be the fault of a role that is tight-lipped and maintains the convention of never expressing his true feelings), Ryder has improved her posh, high class accident from the preceding year (ie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) but remains lacking in control of her voice, though her physical performance is excellent, and Pfeiffer, much like Ryder, seems to have difficulty bringing her voice out of the modern age and imbuing it with the timbre that places it with the grain of being in a period piece.
And make no mistake, this is a damn fine period piece, insofar as costuming and set design–which it won and was nominated for an Oscar in respectively. I’m a little shocked by Ryder’s nomination, I’ll admit, but it’s not stunningly bad (again, see the release from the previous year…) or anything. What it was also nominated for, though, was Elmer Bernstein’s score, which I am in line for–it’s a waltzing one, feeling appropriately contemporary to the film’s setting, a strong melodic lead by strings, with a heavy underpining of lower brass–the woodwinds usually only taking over when the melody requires a greater subtlety, or a need to be pulled back from the forefront, even if still clearly audible and relevant. Of course, this is hardly shocking from a composer like Bernstein, but it is absolutely exquisite when married to both Elaine & Saul Bass’ opening titles and the imagery that Scorsese chooses throughout–tight closeups of food resembling (portraying? it did exist at this point) nouvelle cuisine and the upper class extravagance that represents, and of silverware, photographs, paintings, snow-covered wagon wheels cutting lines in snow, and even a trip through the photographic process in a subtle, quiet and slow manner. It highlights the endless excesses and superficiality of the society these characters all live in, Newland Archer’s secret love for Countess Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer) despite his proposed marriage to May Welland (Ryder), within a society that acts almost exclusively on reputation, perception, rumour, artifice and class status. Certainly I feel these characteristics are being criticized and not glorified or espoused, though their beauty is clear–despite the shallow meaning behind them.
For that, I am certainly in line with the film’s goals, for the romance behind it, for Scorsese’s direction and Schoonmaker’s–as always–artful editing. I hold some interest in the characters, though I find myself consistently irritated by their inability to speak their minds, an approach antithetical to my own approach to social interaction, leaving me vaguely frustrated despite the positive aspects. As such, I cannot rate the film poorly–it is fabulously well made, it is decently or better performed, and my opinion of the things that it portrays, being as it actively chose to portray them is not mine to rate against its quality. I will note that it is likely to end up shockingly least on my list of Scorsese films I’ve viewed, in contradiction to many opinions I’ve experience over time, but such is the way of things–it will hold to some tastes, and not others–but in no (major) way falters in execution. In fact, there are beautiful shots–sweeping from the foot of a closing door, ponderously up to see Archer, passing slowly through a window to make a slow downward descent, and Scorsese’s favourite little tricks–bringing in an outer ring of darkness in such a fashion as to emulate the circular closeups of early film, and darkened curtains used for cuts and scene changes, as if it were a slowly opening aperture, or even the curtains of a stage, never intrusive, but managing to bring in the exact feeling he clearly wants in a scene.
Perhaps the most damning element for my personal taste, though, was the narration. It felt straight out of Wharton’s novel–which I admit to never having read, but I can rarely make it through fiction of such an age–and so was lumbering, caught up in contorted and overly complex syntax, endless descriptions of characters’ views, though with an amusing subtext of venomous critique, but on the whole a bit intrusive and difficult to listen to, especially with its rambling, omniscient, unidentified third person nature.