Edith Wharton is known for three novels: The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But she wrote much more than that, including 19 other novels, three collections of poetry, 14 short story collections, and nine non-fiction works mostly related to travel and architecture.
“Edith Wharton: The Sense of Harmony,” a 2014 documentary from Indiepix, reminds us that the Wharton we were introduced to in high school or college is but a single facet of a fascinating woman. If you’re feeling particularly socialistic you might not enjoy hearing about the lifestyle of this rich and famous woman, who, my wife quipped as we watched together, was the original Real Housewife of New York. But there’s no denying that she had brains, a photographic memory, literary talent, and a compassion that led her to raise money for causes and do such adventurous things as visit the WWI front at a time when NO ONE was given permission to do so.
As literary bio-documentaries go, this one is pretty good, but it begins and ends abruptly and quickly gets down to the business of discussing her life in relation to her books, all within a 57-minute timespan—as if one intended audience might be high school or college literature classes.
Edith Wharton was a part of America’s “one percent” during the nation’s first “Gilded Age,” and her novels often describe the social circles and anxieties of New York’s very rich. She knew everyone of importance, including Teddy Roosevelt, and when she left New York to live in Paris she became entrenched in Parisian high society as well. But the fascinating thing is that she was, in essence, a travel writer in the mold of the more populist writer Mark Twain, and a war correspondent (though a writer of books, rather than contracted stories for magazines) in the manner of Ernest Hemingway. What’s more, as this fascinating documentary from Elizabeth Lennard shows, she used her position to try to help the less fortunate.
“Researching the film was full of encounters and discoveries,” Lennard said. “I managed to unearth, after a long pre-Internet search, the only known film footage of Wharton herself—in only a few seconds. I had the privilege of meeting and filming two people who actually knew her,” Lennard said. “Colin Clark shares childhood memories . . . and Sir Steven Runciman, the great historian of the crusades, aged 98, was eager to share recollections of staying at Wharton’s Villa Saint Claire at Hyeres.” Lennard also interviewed Wharton scholars R.W.B Lewis, Eleanor Dwight and Louis Auchincloss, all of whom appear on camera.
Originally produced for French public television, “Edith Wharton: The Sense of Harmony” is now available in this English version, and it’s crammed full of period footage and photographs, relying on the so-called “Ken Burns effect” for the latter, with the camera panning and scanning still photos to impart a sense of movement. Sometimes, though, that movement seems illogical, as when the camera begins on Wharton’s head and slowly tilts downward until we see the hands in her lap. But for the most part the technique is effective, and complements the large number of early film clips—which, frankly, are the film’s lifeblood. “Edith Wharton” is more of a workman-like biography than anything artistic, a meat-and-potatoes affair that leans heavily on Wharton’s letters (read by an actor) used as a voiceover to accompany visuals that bring the turn of the century to life. But after seeing so many fluff biographies with throwaway narration and too much filler, I found “Edith Wharton: The Sense of Harmony” to be refreshingly brisk and to the point.
“Edith Wharton: The Sense of Harmony” is presented in 1.33:1 full screen, which is the aspect ratio of much of the footage . . . hence, I’m guessing, the decision to stick with that screen format rather than widescreen. The picture quality varies, but really, apart from vertical lines of noise the black-and-white antique footage is really in pretty good shape. And the color interviews with “talking heads” are clear and sharp, with appreciable edge detail.
The featured audio is an English 2.0 Stereo, but with mostly center-stage interviews and voiceover narration you don’t really notice the stereo at all. Is that a negative? Not really. It’s more of a non-issue, because silent vintage footage and photography dominates this documentary, and the narration is nothing one expects to be sonically memorable.
There are no bonus features other than a trailer.
Women of Wharton’s time were expected to be nothing more than wives, and this documentary probably could have emphasized that more than it did. But this film does note that Wharton was the first woman to receive an honorary Doctorate from Yale University and it also spends some time explaining her architectural and garden-design philosophies . . . again, at a time when philosophy was considered the province of men.