Why is it when we meet we always play this elaborate game?” asks Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) of Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz). The answer is that Lily and Lawrence live in a society that gives them no alternative.
Edith Wharton’s tragic story is about a beautiful, spirited woman who is helpless to overcome the manipulations of others and the cruelly rigid society around her. Lily’s assets are her beauty and charm. She understands the rules of the upper class New York society of 1905 very well. As she tells Lawrence, “a girl must [get married] and a man if he chooses.” She is almost completely dependent on her aunt for money, and she knows that she must find a wealthy man to marry as soon as possible.
But, as she admits, she always does “the right thing at the wrong time.” She comes close to marrying wealthy men three times, but cannot bring herself to go through with it. She loves Lawrence, but because he is not wealthy and must work for a living, she never lets herself think of marrying him. She understands the vulnerability of her position — without a fortune of her own, her reputation must be impeccable. The people around her have “minds like moral flypaper — they can forgive a woman anything but the loss of her good name. Unfortunately, Lily’s inherent honesty makes it impossible for her to realize the treachery and desperation around her. She makes some foolish choices: “We resist the great temptations, but it is the little ones that eventually pull us down.”
Though her only mistake is trusting the wrong people, her reputation is compromised and she owes a great deal of money to a man who betrayed her trust and tried to ruin her reputation. By the time she is willing to accept the proposal of businessman Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia), he is no longer willing to offer her the position of wife, only mistress. Rosedale has a kind heart, and he likes Lily. But he is a businessman with ambitions of being fully accepted into society, and he can see that Lily is damaged goods. Perhaps her very willingness to accept him makes her less appealing.
Betrayed by almost everyone she knows and shunned by the rest, Lily sees how fragile her position in society is and how unsuited she is for anything else. She must now find a way to support herself, first as secretary/companion to a vulgar social-climber, then as an apprentice in a millinary shop. She makes one last desperate plea for help from her cousin, and considers an even more desperate attempt at blackmail, but that is a “great temptation” she is able to resist.
With first-rate performances and sumptuous period detail, this is a very worthwhile adaptation of Wharton’s novel.
Parents should know that this is much darker than the usual Merchant-Ivory corsets and carriages movie. Lily becomes addicted to a narcotic. A death is a possible suicide, portrayed as the only honorable choice. The issue of a reputation “compromised” by having an affair is an important theme in the movie. A man tricks Lily into allowing him to invest money for her, putting her in his debt so that she will feel obligated to sleep with him.
Martin Scorcese, director of such classics as “Goodfellas,” said that his Wharton adaptation, “The Age of Innocence,” was his most violent film because it was about emotional violence. This, too, is about emotional violence. The betrayals and cruelty and the lack of alternatives may be very upsetting to some viewers.
Families who see this movie should talk about what has and hasn’t changed since the book’s setting, almost a century ago. Why do people tend to develop closed, tightly regulated hierarchies? How does the New York society in the movie compare to, say, high school? Why was it so hard for Lily to do what she knew was necessary to preserve her position in society? Why was it so hard for Lawrence to tell her how he felt?
Families who enjoy this movie should read the book and see “The Age of Innocence.