“The Age of Innocence” Review

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The Age of Innocence (1993)

Martin Scorsese once said that “The Age of Innocence” was the most violent film he had ever made. He was undoubtedly referring to the emotional torrents in the film, and, even though the film does not comes off as this totally perfect and touching romance, it still has many things to recommend it. Adapted from novel by Edith Wharton, the film pictures the 19th century New York’s delicate high society where manners and appearances take prime considerations. In the midst of it, lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) falls under the spell of the Europeanised and “exotic” Madame Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), finding himself in a love triangle, because he is soon to be married to the society’s belle, May Welland (Winona Ryder). Violent passions raging within the high-fenced societal constraints, almost tearing apart the delicate rules of order and innocence, is the film’s main theme. 

As is seen from this film and his recent “Silence” (2016), Martin Scorsese likes adapting challenging novels. As “Silence”, “The Age of Innocence” is difficult to adapt to the screen because a lot of “action” is going on inside the main character’s head. He thinks and feels certain things deep inside, and these are essential to be conveyed to the screen. Nevertheless, the script to the film could not have been more faithful to the novel or considerate to the numerous details in the book. As the novel, the film opens with the opera “Faust”, during which Newland makes his first contact with Madame Ellen Olenska, a separated married woman who has recently arrived from Europe. From the very first contact, Newland is fascinated by Ellen Olenska, and she causes a stir not only in his heart, but also in the New York’s society, where she is initially viewed as a woman with a tarnished reputation to be avoided. What follow are their “innocent” meetings, whether among family or friends, or in their roles of a lawyer and a client with Newland pursuing Ellen from New York to Boston and Washington. As the novel, Scorsese managed here to convey this sense that Madame Olenska inverted Newland’s values and broadened his horizons by bringing her extravagance and foreign influence. Newland himself senses that he is disillusioned with his marriage which he thought to mean a loving and intellectual partnership between two equals. Newland begins to sense that the purity of May is merely an artificial product of her upbringing, and feels himself buried under the weight of his own future, and shackled to old societal rules and conventions. The ending to this film is beautifully made and emotional.

Even though Scorsese did not make some things clear in the film, such as the New York society’s transition from old customs to new modes of thinking, and the clear divide between the New York’s “bohemian” society and the close-knitted society of Newland, he did manage to convey New York as the centre of old traditions and customs where reputation, good taste and fashion are of utmost importance, and where “scandals are feared more than death”. In such a society, truth is never spoken and rarely thought, and could only be guessed through the manifestation or arbitrary, barely detectable signs (Wharton novel).

Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” is a better film than Jane Campion’s adaptation of Henry James’ novel “The Portrait of a Lady” (1996), which came out three years after, but this maybe because the director here is determined to pay so much attention to the details and the atmosphere/setting of the film. The camera sometimes circles the stately rooms of the high society’s grand houses and lingers on exquisite dishes and paintings around houses, demonstrating a slice of New York’s rich cultural life. For example, in one scene, Newland takes in the rich interiors of the house of Julius Beaufort (one of only a few houses in New York which still possesses a separate ballroom), and in another scene, the camera lingers on some exquisite culinary delight. Much like Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” (2012), the beautiful cinematography and the unconventional camera-work are maybe the things which contribute to the film being so interesting to watch.

The three lead actors were all Scorsese’s first choices for the parts, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder in their respective roles are perfectly cast. Day-Lewis as Newland Archer is exactly as he is described in the film, because true “Newlands” are portrayed as tall, pale, slightly languid, and Day-Lewis’s looks and his kind, gentlemanly manner fits the portrayal well. He is quiet and considerate, but still is rebellious within. Ryder also looks the very May Welland, who is described as the impersonation of Diana, the ancient goddess of the moon and the hunt. Ryder is beautiful, but also possesses this sweetness and innocence about her, which contrasts nicely with the rich and exotic beauty of Ellen Olenska or Michelle Pfeiffer. In fact, in the novel/film, Newland Archer makes a distinction between them in terms of lilies-of-the-valley – May Welland, and yellow roses – Ellen Olenska. However, Michelle Pfeiffer in the role of Ellen Olenska could be viewed as both a good cast and the film’s curse. Pfeiffer embodies the eccentricity and the inner vulnerability of Olenska well, but she is almost like a caricature of the character. Pfeffier, who was previously the Catwoman in “Batman Returns” (1992), may not look like a real victim here, and because of her powerful presence and almost ferocious beauty, be less sympathetic that may be desired here. In the book, Ellen is described as young and thin, but Pfeiffer is arguably too mature-looking to make a subtle contrast with May (Ryder). The contrast between powerful-looking Pfeiffer and languid-appearing Day-Lewis is so great, that there is virtually no chemistry between their characters in the film, and the supposed extreme emotional scenes between them lose their intended magic. As a result of this lack of chemistry between Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer, it is hard to believe in their all-consuming romance, let alone passion between them, especially on Madame Olenska’s part. This is especially so since their characters are supposed to fall in love with each other on their second brief meeting.

On a positive note, the acting is good in the film, and the supporting cast especially shines. For example, Winona Ryder was nominated for her performance by the Academy in the Best Supporting Actress category, and Ryder really shows not only the kindness of May, but also May’s perceptiveness and inner intelligence. The cast also includes such names as Michael Gough (“Batman Returns”), Miriam Margolyes (“Harry Potter” (2002)), Richard E. Grant (“The Portrait of a Lady”) and Stuart Wilson (“Death and the Maiden” (1994)), the latter appearing to flattering for such a character as deceitful Julius Beaufort. Martin Scorsese, similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s past habits, even makes a cameo appearance as a photographer in Newland and May’s wedding.

Also, amidst the film’s faithful adaptation, controlled direction and beautiful production, there is also this feeling that the film is too well-thought-out and constructed for its own good. The result is that the film does not “breathe” on its own and appears too long, and even, sometimes, downright boring to watch. Many scenes and dialogues seem too artificial and unnatural in their presentation, and the off-screen narration does not help things along. For example, where letters are written and sent in the book, Scorsese makes his actors speak the lines of their letters to the camera. This is quite unnecessary and makes the film unrealistic and theatrical at times.

The Age of Innocence” may too theatrical in its presentation, and the chemistry between the lead actors could have been better, but the film is still a faithful, considerate and beautiful adaptation of the acclaimed novel. 7/10

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7 Responses to “The Age of Innocence” Review

  1. Jolene says:

    You are not doing any selling here, I promise. I was meaning to read & watch this one since I came across Wharton’s other feature The House of Mirth (which was amazingly good…) It is disappointing to hear that Lewis and Pfeiffer did not have that onscreen spark as I thought that would have been needed to underpin the film. But I like Wharton’s (and Scorsese’s) storytelling and I’m sure it’s still a fine rendition. 🙂

  2. Such an underrated film. I think this is one of the best films he has ever made. I love the attention to detail in the period recreation. The film is beautiful to look at too. Such a moving love story and we get a sense of how restrictive life was back then.

  3. Eric Binford says:

    It is flawed, but pretty good. It needs “something,” I don’t know what, to really soar. Personally, I liked Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady a bit more. The performances in both movies are excellent.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      I think this film lacks the romance which could really be believed in. I guess I am very critical of Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady because for me it not only did not capture the spirit of the novel, but also completely misrepresented the characters in the original novel. For example, Malkovich’s Osmond is just too overtly malicious and Kidman’s Isabel is remembered nearly as ferocious, which is a bit unfair. At least here Scorsese managed to convey the atmosphere and “feel” of the novel right. But to each his own, and Campion is one of my favourite directors.

      • Eric Binford says:

        I haven’t read The Portrait of a Lady, but I do have the book. I want to read it someday. I did like the movie, but I understand where you are coming from. I hated Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil because he totally missed the point of the book …

  4. Arti says:

    I found your astute analysis particularly relevant as I’ve come from discussing “Silence”. Putting The Age of Innocence alongside Silence just shows Scorsese’s versatility as a director. As for my opinion of his Wharton adaptation, I find it very well done (I’d give 8 out of 10), and I feel Pfeffier a good cast. She may look strong and independent on the outside, but still carries a tender yearning despite her ‘maturity’, not unlike May’s. The two make a wonderful contrast. The final scene is heartrending. This is another adaptation that’s worthy of its source material. As for Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, the acting is too good (esp. with the wicked John M.) that it won’t be a comfortable one to watch over and over again. Thanks for stopping by Ripple Effects. I hope you’ll share your view next time. Your opinion is much valued there. 🙂

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      The ending of “The Age of Innocence” was very well done indeed. That scene with the bench is really emotional. Scorsese can really deliver and excel in this. I guess here and in “The Portrait of a Lady” I wanted to see more subtlety. Pfeiffer and Malkovich look like caricatures of their respective characters. The films’ books are full of nuances and hidden contexts, and I thought the films would somehow include more of that. I always appreciate your comments, thank you!

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