2018 Film Essays

Love, Society and Nations in ‘The Age of Innocence’ and ‘The Remains of the Day’

In a key scene from Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) implores his beloved, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), to abandon all reason and come away with him. He has married May (Winona Ryder), Ellen’s sweet but unquestioningly norm-abiding cousin, despite his desire for the more free-thinking and passionate woman. He stews in frustration at the scandal their relationship could cause in New York, rejecting the ideas of wives and mistresses and pining for a world “where words like that don’t exist.” Ellen can’t help but laugh: “Where is that country? Have you ever been there?”

The year 1993 saw the release of both The Age of Innocence and James Ivory’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, two gorgeously realized period pieces chronicling unfulfilled love. Both films — among their directors’ best — celebrated their 25th anniversary quietly, though the former saw a belated release on Blu-ray from Criterion, while the latter played in a 70mm blowup in Chicago this fall (an ideal way to view Anthony Hopkins’ subtly tortured expressions). Beyond their superficial similarities, however, The Age of Innocence and The Remains of the Day both explore strict societal expectations, unwritten rules and how they box people in, keeping them unhappy.

Released in November 1993, The Remains of the Day was the more successful of the two at the time, capping off Merchant Ivory’s series of critical and commercial hits and earning eight Oscar nominations. The film focuses on James Stevens (Hopkins), the longtime butler of Darlington Hall, and his inability to express his love for housekeeper Sarah Kenton (Emma Thompson) in 1930s England; this takes place against the backdrop of Lord Darlington (James Fox) playing a key role in the appeasement of Adolf Hitler. The film also jumps forward to the late 1950s, as Stevens, still at Darlington Hall, lives with the memories of both his lost love and the disgrace of the man — and the family name — he spent his life serving.

Ivory’s restrained aesthetic draws parallels between Stevens’ lost chance at love and a failed English aristocracy and crumbling British empire. The director’s dissolves between time periods turn the memories of Darlington, Kenton and the once much larger staff into ghosts, while his strong use of shadows in the backrooms, compared to the light and richness of the main rooms, strongly underlines the class split in the manor. Ivory’s close ups on Hopkins’ expressive face, meanwhile, show a man burying his emotions while tending to a dying way of things. The film features the actor’s best performance, his posture exact and face almost permanently neutral as he maintains an air of distanced professionalism, never concerning himself with his own happiness or his master’s fealty to a ruling class over humanitarian concerns. 

The sense of a world that’s both constraining and collapsing is not accidental; Ivory, his producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are all outsiders to England. While Ivory’s films concentrated primarily on Europe and India, he was a Catholic American in the Protestant-dominated country with a strong sense of class politics and how they determined people’s fates. Merchant was a Indian Muslim who grew up witnessing the end of British rule and the sometimes-violent effects of the Partition of India. Jhabvala was a German-born Jew who witnessed Kristallnacht and fled the Nazi regime for Britain. Additionally, Ivory and Merchant were life partners. The three imbue The Remains of the Day not only with a sense of longing and pain in Stevens’ and Kenton’s unfulfillment and quiet desperation, but a sense of moral failure in Darlington’s actions and Stevens’ inaction.

The contrast between Hopkins’ work and Thompson’s vivaciousness and impassioned sense of right and wrong is stark; where she objects to Darlington sending away a pair of Jewish refugees amid growing anti-Semitism, Stevens simply moves along with his work. He’s drawn to Kenton’s kindness and her appeals to his better nature, but he can’t help but stay in his prescribed role. When she teases him for reading a romance novel, he’s too paralyzed to let out how he feels, his body looking as if it’s about to burst as his face strains to conceal his emotions. When the two briefly reunite years later, Kenton gives Stevens more openings to show how he feels; he still cannot, or will not, do so. When Stevens remarks to his later master, a former Congressman (Christopher Reeve in one of his final pre-accident roles) who saw the threat of Nazi Germany, that he was “too busy serving to listen to the speeches,” he’s not lying. Whether he’s in love or the witness to an all-time moral failure, his sense of propriety and need to fulfill his role trumps all.

The characters of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence are similarly stuck in prescribed roles, even if they’re more vocal about it. Day-Lewis stars as Newland Archer, a New York lawyer in the 1870s who’s privately critical of repressive customs but cannot speak up in public. He’s engaged to May Welland (Ryder), whose cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer), has returned to New York seeking a divorce from her philandering husband. Newland supports her; the rest of New York’s high society ostracizes her, and as Newland falls in love with Ellen, he finds himself paralyzed by his obligations to May and the expectations of everyone around him.

Released in October 1993 between the commercial hits Cape Fear and Casino, The Age of Innocence sank at the box office but has gained a passionate following in the years since. Where The Remains of the Day is stately and quietly powerful, The Age of Innocence is as lush and emotionally overwhelming as any of Scorsese’s more popular efforts. Part of it comes from how Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus foreground the resplendent décor and richly saturated colors of New York’s wealthiest, seducing viewers and showing the pull of the world as well as he did with wiseguys in Goodfellas. The filmmaker and regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker make some of their boldest stylistic choices with moves straight out of the works of Michael Powell (Schoonmaker’s late husband), from expressive flashes of color when Ellen receives flowers from Newland to an emotional climactic sequence that’s as expertly composed, choreographed and cut as any of Powell’s finest works.

Beneath the opulence, however, lies dissatisfaction. In an early scene, Ellen observes that New York blindly obeys “somebody else’s traditions,” with America acting as “a copy of another country.” Scorsese made his career chronicling traditions and codes, be they the expectations of gangsters (Mean Streets, Goodfellas), religious figures (The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence) or showbiz types (New York, New York; The King of Comedy) after growing up in New York and witnessing them firsthand. He has a bone-deep understanding of how traditions and rules box people in, and how those people break. The director called The Age of Innocence his most “emotionally violent” film, and it fits; where Goodfellas sees betrayals spelled out in blood and prison sentences, The Age of Innocence sees them writ across the hearts of its protagonists.

At her peak, Pfeiffer specialized in playing women forced to guard themselves after being hurt in the past; The Age of Innocence is the canniest use of her screen persona, casting her as a woman who’s at once the warmest and most open presence in a room and the one who has to work the hardest to hide what she wants. Day-Lewis, meanwhile, plays the most bottled-up character and the one least adept at hiding his desires; where Pfeiffer publicly projects an air of blithe indifference to the rules and indefatigable spirit, her screen partner is banked in frustration, his mask of geniality poorly concealing a soul being torn at from all ends. Ryder, for her part, expertly disguises her character’s manipulative nature by playing up her girlishness, hiding her sideward glances with bashful smiles and wide eyes. The film does not cast her as a villain, but as someone who uses the few tools provided to her to ensure her own happiness, with knowledge that Newland will willingly abandon his own without her needing to ask. New York goes on, everyone playing their part, with only true happiness cast to oblivion.

This is the America that Newland, Ellen and May inhabit; it is not altogether very different from the England that traps Hopkins’ Stevens and Thompson’s Kenton, just as dependent on everyone staying in their given roles. It is appropriate that both films end years after their main action, with Newland and Stevens living with little more than memories of their personal failures — and the failures of the systems around them — while Ellen and Kenton carry on as best they can. Perhaps, in another country, fate would be happier for them. Or perhaps, as Ellen suggests, that country does not exist.

Max O’Connell (@maxboconnell) is a writer and critic living in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University, and he has worked as an arts reporter and editor in South Dakota. He likes Jonathan Demme, Joni Mitchell and sometimes non-”J” things, too.