, a superb costume drama from director Martin Scorsese, takes place in New York City in the later part of the nineteenth century during the Gilded Age, a period in United States history where social problems were disguised by a false pretense and surface sheen.Scorsese’s career is filled with New York stories; however, they rarely take place in such fine surroundings.Scorsese modeled his production after costume dramas of classic Hollywood, also known as women’s films or period pieces.
His father Luciano, who was fascinated by historical costumes and to whom the film was dedicated, inspired the production. Her matter-of-fact observations and the tone of her voice capture what Scorsese called “the chill bemused irony of the narration” in Stanley Kubrick’s (1975), an inspiration to the director in more than just the narration.
Woodward’s voice describes and critiques the world portrayed in the film: “This was a world balanced so precariously that its harmony could be shattered by a whisper.” What was essential to the narration for Scorsese was its ability to turn “the drama gradually from shrewd observation of 19th Century English mores into a complex poignant portrait of vanity and ambition.” The narrator remarks, “It was widely known in New York, but never acknowledged, that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.” Scorsese also created parallels between the dramatic themes in the narrative and the background decorations, paintings, and décor in his film—a similar approach to Kubrick, who placed his small characters within a vast frame, much like the landscapes on display throughout his film.
Set inside some of the late nineteenth century’s richest New York homes, the emotional violence that drives the film thematically is hidden behind an intricate, decorative splendor.
Scorsese’s camera cleverly spends more time on objects than on his characters’ faces.
If an act of social indiscretion transpires, all sects of the respective family become involved.
After all, family names survive, the individuals therein do not.The characters are placed in an environment of repression, submission, and most of all, a stifling behavioral decorum that limits what a person can say, do, or even feel.Marriage is a contract, more about a vital link between two important families than two lovers. There is no personal life outside of what affects the family.Daniel Day-Lewis plays young attorney Newland Archer, outwardly engaged to the young May Welland (Winona Ryder) for love.We gather that love was only the offshoot, perhaps the illusion forced by an arranged coupling.Schoonmaker also dissolves into visual blushes, a solid color (red, yellow) that represents an internalized emotion experienced by a character.Scorsese’s entire visual approach is both historically accurate and a perfect metaphor for this world.Most were set in high society, sometimes Victorian England or an earlier period that allowed extravagant costumes and set pieces—anyplace that transported the mostly female viewers of the era, and their husbands and children, away from the drudgery of their daily lives, from the Depression to World War II.They featured stars like Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland, and they drew from sources in popular and prestige literature.Much like the film’s characters, we conform to the surroundings as the film goes on, taking it for granted.But ultimately, we want to break out of that world, just as the film’s protagonist does, because he is eventually forced into accepting conformity—his fate dictated by behavioral decorum. Thelma Schoonmaker overlays one image with the next, ever-dissolving in an orgiastic flow of visual stimulation, transitioning between paintings, cutlery, and mouth-wateringly decadent cuisine—all of which the film’s characters seem uninterested in and complacent about.