The Age of Innocence (1993) / Drama-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG for sensuality
Running time: 139 min.

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Alexis Smith, Geraldine Chaplin, Mary Beth Hurt, Alec McCowen, Richard E. Grant, Miriam Margolyes. Jonathan Pryce, Michael Gough, Joanne Woodward (narrator), Martin Scorsese (cameo)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese (based on the novel by Edith Wharton)

Review published August 9, 2007

Based on Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of 1920, The Age of Innocence paints a rather unflattering portrait of a society repressed, where upbringing ands social standing marked the true difference between favor and failure among the town's elite.  As the city is repressed, so to is the protagonist at the heart of the film, conflicted between what he wants to do and what is expected of someone of his position in the world.  He finds someone that he could fall madly in love with, and she of him.  They are both aware that they have found their true soul mate, able to gaze upon each other, speak to each other, and even embrace, but their lot in life will not allow a happy union without giving up everything deemed truly important by society's standards. 

Daniel Day-Lewis (The Bounty, The Boxer) stars as Newland Archer, a late-19th Century aristocrat based in affluent New York City.  He is soon to wed a lovely but unspectacular woman named May Welland (Ryder, Heathers).  Doubts creep in when May's cousin Ellen (Pfeiffer, Batman Returns) arrives in town, rekindling old feelings Newland had for her from days past.  Trouble is, Ellen is married, and worse, seeking a divorce, and worst yet, she has a reputation for being a woman of ill repute back home, which has been a black eye to the family pride.  Trying to keep from constant stagnation, Newland rushes May into marriage, hoping that he wouldn't have to make any decisions that would impact his life forever, but finds that no matter what he does, he can't get Ellen off of his mind, especially as he grows more bored with his new married life with May.

Generally overlooked when discussing the greatest works of Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The King of Comedy), The Age of Innocence is still a masterwork of a sort nonetheless.  Scorsese crafts an intricate and intimate tale, employing subtle camera work and delicate character nuance in order to accentuate this story told more through looks and body language than in violent acts or obscenity-strewn tirades.  If nothing else, Scorsese shows himself a true craftsman of film, eschewing nearly everything one associates with his best works.  No classic tunes to punctuate the mood, no saucy dialogue to catch the ear of the streets, and no delving into the seedy urban underbelly to showcase the larger-than-life characters one might think to find in the dog-eat-dog world.

The Age of Innocence is a character study of a man in agony, an agony he can never express to anyone for fear of losing everything he is, and everything he wishes he could be.  If he were to utter a word of it, no one would dare take his side.  He would be, for all intents and purposes, a pariah walking among them -- no one dare castigate him, yet no one would dare ally themselves with someone found is such social disfavor.  This disfavor is what Ellen is undergoing, tolerated due to her family name, yet considered of lower stature for her notions of divorce, which was something close to taboo in that age and place. 

Other than Scorsese's marvelous direction, The Age of Innocence is blessed by a very strong performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who normally gets accolades for his emotional portrayals, but this role is far more difficult to play.  It requires us to know what Newland is thinking at all times, though he never gets to truly talk to anyone else about what he feels.  Even moments alone with Ellen are burdened with words not said aloud, as they dance around the issue of their feelings toward one another until they can take no more.  The supporting cast is also excellent, with fine portrayals by Pfeiffer and Ryder, although they are far more willing to accept their lots in life, for better or worse, and manage to deal with inner conflicts in a much more reasoned fashion. 

Of course, what review of a period piece would be complete without mentioning the gorgeous Academy Award-winning costume design, cinematography, sets and make-up, all of which are as beautiful and sumptuous as any could have imagined.  Elmer Bernstein's lovely score perfectly accentuates the feeling of the times and understated emotions, never encroaching into flashiness, always reserved as the rest of the film. 

For all of the notions of repressed inner feelings, Scorsese has never made a film more about emotions than this one, going right to the core of the whispers listened to in one's heart that can only be kept in check by constant reminders of one's expectations in life.  If love is a sickness then unrequited love is the most fatal, effectively destroying its victims, who have no hope of release without consummation, no hope of consummation without opportunity, and no hope of opportunity without mutual agreement -- something that the two would-be lovers can never quite fully connect on, though they both try at various times.

Although those who consider themselves Scorsese fans will continue to not give The Age of Innocence its proper due, it is only because he has made so many classics that a film like this could be overlooked -- it would be the finest film in nearly any other director's repertoire.  It's interesting that, when thinking of films by Scorsese, it's so hard to remember, when, as a standalone piece, it's so hard to forget.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo