Directors that are clearly associated with one genre of film run risks when they stray too far from their wheelhouse. Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers are second to none but his non-genre pictures are less-beloved. If you want to see a lavishly constructed period drama, the Merchant-Ivory films are among the most beloved of that field, but you’d never want them to make a science fiction film (although as I think about it, that would be very interesting). How many times have you heard people complain that Woody Allen should go back to making funny movies instead of the more serious films of his later period? Martin Scorsese ranks as one of Hollywood’s greatest crime drama directors, and his decision to gamble on the lush, romantic period drama The Age of Innocence may seem odd, but Scorsese finds yet another success with this highly erotic and visually stunning tragic love story.
Scorsese has called The Age of Innocence his most violent film. And he doesn’t mean that in a physical sense of the term. So many of Scorsese’s protagonists are men struggling against their place in society whether it’s an overt religious/sexual conflict (Raging Bull), a struggle against both ethnic identity as well as criminal law (Goodfellas), or a total rebellion against society’s mores and conventions due to mental illness (Taxi Driver). With The Age of Innocence, Scorsese tackles the total destruction of one man’s soul through the machinations of turn of the century American class politics and the tragic denial of one’s true love. Where Scorsese’s crime films featured a visceral, physical display of violence, The Age of Innocence takes a journey into the mind for a cerebral and spiritual examination of one man’s continual degradation of spirit.
In the upper crust of New York society in the 1870s, Archer Newland (Daniel Day-Lewis) is forced to choose between the woman society has chosen for him and the women he truly loves. The film begins with Archer’s engagement to the well-bred but ultimately vapid May Welland (Winona Ryder) whose well-to-do family is among Manhattan’s most respected. Archer loves her in his own way — or at least he thinks he does — but their long engagement is thrown for a loop with the arrival of May’s exotic and scandalous cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Contemplating a divorce from her European (and likely abusive) husband, Countess Olenska’s willfulness and directness send shockwaves through the stiff, reserved society of Newland and his peers. It isn’t long before Newland develops a friendship and ultimately a type of romance with the Countess that threatens to shatter his place among the elites of society.
That shallow description of the plot only begins to hint at the larger social and political commentaries inherent in Edith Wharton’s novel which the film is based on. Ostensibly the film is about Archer Newland’s psychic conflict as he is forced to choose what is socially acceptable and what he really wants. Does he want passion or stability, love or a place in society? Yet, the film is as concerned with the class snobbery and hypocrisy from the Manhattan upper crust as it is Archer’s tragic love story. In fact, this may be one of the most ironic period dramas I’ve ever seen in so far as Martin Scorsese’s eye for period detail and almost absurdly lavish costumes and sets is a visual feast for the senses while he constantly subverts those images by reminding the audience of the hollowness beneath all of the glitz and glamour.
What ultimately elevates the film even above its source material (or perhaps I should say its story as I’ve never actually read Wharton’s novel) is Scorsese’s unerring directorial eye. Similarly to his unconventional children’s film Hugo, The Age of Innocence is as much a visual ode to its cinematic predecessors as it is a story-driven film in its own right. Through clever use of older fashioned film stock, lens filters, and a vibrant color palette that reminds you why color films were invented in the first place, Scorsese’s cinematography is a immaculate recreation of the Merchant-Ivory period films and the David Lean epics with a healthy dose of the more modern shooting styles that Scorsese himself helped to innovate in the 70s. I spent more time in this film taking in the constantly shifting but always gorgeous cinematography as I did paying attention the characters and performances.
That isn’t to dismiss the performances. As always, Daniel Day-Lewis shows why he is arguably the greatest actor of his generation even though this isn’t one of his most challenging roles. It’s simply the wide range of roles that Day-Lewis can inhabit with such seeming ease. Compare his quiet and sensitive Archer Newland in this film to the rough and barbaric Bill “The Butcher” in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York — my second favorite Scorsese film — or his cold and scheming oil baron in There Will Be Blood or his other Oscar winning role as the disabled Christy Brown in My Left Foot. He falls in so easily as the wounded and trapped Archer Newland that he’s one of those rare actors who completely morphs into all of his performances. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the world’s most famous and talented actors, but in his films, you think of him as his roles not Daniel Day-Lewis. The Age of Innocence is no exceptions.
The performances from the female leads are less resounding. Michelle Pfeiffer was surprisingly well-cast as the sultry and seductive Countess Olenska. Her sexual chemistry with Daniel Day-Lewis was electric and you’ve never seen a woman sell her glove being removed as being so astoundingly erotic. You see both the intellectual and personal strength that Archer finds so attractive in her as well as the hurt she feels by the cruelness New York society inflicts on her. Winona Ryder on the other hand is a bit of a travesty. She was nominated for an Oscar and I simply can’t comprehend it. I’m a fan of her other performances, but she makes May seem so dim-witted and emotionless that you can’t generate any sympathy for a woman who is ultimately suffering as much as Archer. It’s an emotionally complex and nuanced role, and Winona Ryder simply lacked the subtlety to bring it home.
For fans of period dramas, you may need no other recommendation than the film’s sublime attention to detail. The costumes are beautiful. The homes are like something from an interior decorators happiest dreams, and there are enough mouth-watering feasts to feed a third world nation. However, what makes a great period drama aren’t the period details. It’s the characters and the story (and in this film’s case, the stunning direction), and The Age of Innocence simply delivers on all fronts. Perhaps the film can feel a little slow by Scorsese standards, and I could make a decent argument that at least 10 or 15 minutes could have been cut from the film, but The Age of Innocence just solidifies Scorsese as one of America’s cinematic treasures by his almost peerless ability to work in seemingly incompatible genres.
Final Score: A-