There’s a lot of novel to churn through here, and the scenes with narration feel in step with that (as opposed to the more evocative, immersive character narration of GOODFELLAS), but Scorsese more than puts his mark on Edith Wharton’s staple novel here. The fades to colour, characters delivering readings of letters direct to camera in dreamy sequences, the juttery pans when a character is looking through opera glasses (more in tune with how things are actually perceived through them, as opposed to the more intuitive smooth cinematic pan from the perspective of the glasses), typical Scorsese dreamy dolly movements, fast dissolves, unbidden close-ups, and the layered composition, with the abundance of box-shapes (paintings, screens) creating frames within frames.
The focus on repression works well to Scorsese’s strengths too, and very much Daniel Day-Lewis’ – his understated lead performance, where a world-weary half-smirk is as aggressive as he really gets, holds him back from the excess and violence (in any sense) both he and Scorsese operate so comfortably in. The ghastly old-age makeup Day-Lewis’ character eventually adorns provides an amusing contrast to the CGI ageplay of THE IRISHMAN that Scorsese would make decades later, but Day-Lewis’ performance (whatever it’s under) grounds things back to that concept that repression and withholding is preferable to the non-fantasy reality that there is no greener side. Wherever one goes, there they remain, as Michelle Pfeiffer’s character tries to make plain when Day-Lewis’ talks of some land where they could be free from the societal expectations the film revolves around. The final scene does a marvellous job of emphasising the fundamental appeal and fantasy of repression, of not doing something, which the whole setting and progression of the story frame around. Winona Ryder is the key to all that, and without her performance to deepen a part that initially seems thankless and merely an object for Day-Lewis’ character to see as an embodiment of emptiness, the whole affair would be far more tedious. Three and a half written refusals, and a pair of opera glasses.