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At the Beaufort Ball where May and Newland announce their engagement, he leads his bride-to-be in a graceful waltz and she graciously follows, to the approval of polite society. The dance of Newland and the Countess is not the sort done in ballrooms. It is a martial art, a kind of emotional tai chi, of attraction and repulsion, advance and retreat.
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Newland bows instead, leaving the nonplussed Countess to retract her arm. Each of their encounters for the rest of the film has Newland moving toward the Countess and she retreating—or vice-versa. It is a dance where no one leads. Polite New York society disapproves, and ultimately intervenes, because it disturbs the social order. Scorsese, who has directed five actors to Oscar-winning performances, elicits superb work from his three central actors. In a very competitive year, only Ryder earned an Academy Award nomination for supporting actress.
When Archer is with May, he exhibits exquisite self-control. With the Countess, he loses it, and himself. As the filmmaker composed it, the false smiles and carefully calibrated amiability of these social animals are scored to the musical sounds of cheer. By contrast, the scenes between Archer and the Countess are so quietly intense that one can hear their hearts palpitate—and crack open.
Their unfulfilled affair builds to crescendo in the back seat of a carriage belonging to May. Kiera Cass.
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