The Age of Innocence (1993)
User ReviewsReview this title
I think the film may have been ignored at its release because of the slew of other "period pieces" which were so popular (an eventually common) in the late 80's/early 90's... But watching it again 10 years later, this film is anything but common.
The true intensity is Scorcese's detached presentation of a hypocritical & hateful society which holds its members as prisoners.
Not to mention impeccable art direction & beautiful cinematography by the legendary Michael Ballhaus. The film looks as impressionistic as the paintings that line the walls of the characters' homes.
Scorsese is always acute in his casting decisions, and this is one of the films many virtues:
Lewis is perfect as a man who's struggle between his passion & his duty are constantly on the verge of devouring him (yet somehow he thrives on his torture).
Ryder is the seemingly innocent & naive girl who is completely manipulative & cunning underneath her exterior (gee, who would have thought?!) -- notice the arching scene.
In a sense, this was one of Pfeiffer's defining roles. Pfeiffer herself (in a sense) is an "outcast" who has never truly been accepted as a "serious" actress by her peers in the acting community. Watching this film again, it amazes me how this role somehow reflects her personal position in the current social structure of Hollywood, similar to her character existing in 1800's New York society.
What an amazing pic. I completely "missed it" the first time around. Great observance of "high society." Many of those codes are strangely applicable today.
Not recommended for those who like fast paced movies, or those who are looking for the "usual Scorcese." I would couple this with "Last Temptation of Christ" as Scorsese's most brave, artistic, demanding & abstract films to date.
The story takes place in New York, around 1880. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) must choose between his current fiancee May Welland (Winona Ryder) and her cousin who has just arrived from Poland and is recently divorced, Helen Ollenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). May is the symbol of a world he's familiar with, and Helen represents the world he's dreaming of.
Living in a conservative world full of compromises, Newland is as much trapped by his social circle as the Italian-American heroes of Mean Streets and GoodFellas. However, the Mafia here is called New York aristocracy and kills with words, with a gesture or with a look of contempt and rejection, instead of using guns. Scorsese fans who expect to see psychotic characters, violence or De Niro-style performances, will be disappointed. Everything in this movie is based on the observation and recording of the social behaviour codes, the unexpressed feelings and of things which are not not said but implied. Scorsese portrayed with absolute preciseness, almost paragraph to paragraph, Edith Wharton's classic novel. However, he managed to give the film his own unique personal view, proving his gigantic talent and that he's capable of creating masterpieces, whatever the heroes, the story or the genre of the film. Winona Ryder should definitely have won the Oscar for her wonderful performance, but Lewis and Pfeiffer are marvellous as well. What's left to say? The Age of Innocence is an un-excusably underrated all time classic.
Martin Scorsese, the man most famous for giving gangsters a loud, cinematic voice, has done the unthinkable: he has made what is probably the most elegant film ever created. Out-costuming the Merchant Ivory team, he's taken the starch out of costume dramas and created an epic of beauty. He also goes one step further than his cinematic colleagues and perfectly translates Wharton's writing on two important levels: having key passages from the book directly narrated (in the most languid voice work) by Joanne Woodward, and visually translating Wharton's sentiments with his camera movements and Thelma Schoonmaker's skillful editing.
The story centres on the life of Newland Archer (Day-Lewis), a young member of the New York gentry in the 1870s who has the affluent life anyone in his position should have. He is a successful lawyer, he owns a beautiful home, and is just recently engaged to the beautiful and, ahem, proper May Welland (Ryder). Upon announcing his engagement, he meets for the first time since childhood May's cousin, one Countess Olenska (Pfeiffer). She has just returned from Europe after leaving her abusive husband, a Polish Count.
It is soon obvious that Archer and Countess Olenska are attracted to each other in the most gripping of ways: they understand each other. This leads them to a passion that is practically deadly in the watchdog society they live in.
From the beginning of the story, Scorsese makes sure we get to know who these people are. Scanning over an opera audience's heads, he gives us close-ups of the ornaments in the women's hair, the chains on the men's ornate pocket watches. When we are shown a dinner scene at a particular hosts' grand estate, Scorsese lingers over the perfectly arranged plates of food, or the meticulously designed floral bouquets. All this may seem unnecessary, but it's actually the setup for a love story that needs this careful attention to detail to be told correctly.
These elements are given to us in such detail because the world we're watching knows nothing of more importance than your house's interior decoration: if your host doesn't have a proper drawing room decorated in the generally accepted fashion, he might be considered unfit for your patronage (at one point, the not-so-respectable Julius Beauford hangs a nude Venus, audaciously, in plain sight). In her novel, Wharton painted a picture of two-dimensional people, people who wasted entire lives (and loves) on making sure they could avoid the careful whispers being spoken behind closed doors, even though it never stopped them from joining in on the whispering when someone else was involved.
These details are comfortably housed in Dante Ferretti's brilliant production design. The sets come from a beautiful dream, looming large over the actors' heads, surrounding them with the obsession of `conspicuous consumption' that heavily marked the Victorian period. In the same way, Gabriella Pescucci's detailed costume designs display the plush fabrics and embroideries that reveal to the audience much of the characters' emotions and situations. Even the stark black and white of the men's suits seem to suggest how these gentlemen view the issues they face in their lives, such as a nearly-married man involved romantically with his fiancee's cousin. Archer's suits, as the film progresses, begin to be worn in the colour gray.
Filling these costumes is no easy task. For the three main characters in this battle of wills, Scorsese has hired none but the very best. As Archer, Day-Lewis gives his most comprehensive performance so far. Abandoning his usually ingratiating showy techniques, his performance lies in the suffering that we witness behind his eyes. I so much prefer this role over his overstated innocent-prisoner turn in In The Name of the Father, which also came out the same year (and for which he received all the critical attention and award nominations); here he treads more along the same lines as his tenderhearted punk rocker in Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette.
Michelle Pfeiffer is as sharp as a tack as Ellen Olenska, a woman who has seen it all and is still forced to suffer. Looking at it from her point of view, the film is about a woman who is punished by society for being comfortable with herself. From the outset we see she is different: she doesn't speak shyly to men or wait for them to initiate conversation. `Why would they start a new world only to make it exactly like the old one?' she asks Archer. She smokes in front of Archer, is seen publicly being escorted places (quite innocently) with a married man (Wilson) who she doesn't want to go out with but feels obligated by family ties, and dares to attempt a divorce from her monster of a husband. A woman who knows what she wants and goes for it? Demonic! She must be destroyed. All New York shamelessly rallies together to eradicate this villain.
Who better to lead the haughty fray than Olenska's own nemesis: May Welland. As May, Ryder is simply remarkable. In her first scene she seems to us a complete nitwit: a pretty and well-dressed girl, but one who pays no attention to the betterment of her mental faculties. Ryder tears down that façade with burning relish. She understands the character from the inside out, making May the most emotionally inspiring character in the whole movie (and the one that inspires the most conversation after viewing the film). As the plot progresses, we start to understand how May really works; though she is intellectually unrefined, she's not in the least bit stupid. She is Wharton's representation of the society Archer and Olenska are trapped in: she plays by the rules like she invented them, and uses any device to make sure everything turns out her way, and it does. She never comes out with what she wants to say, opting instead to turn passive-aggressive on her husband. When she slips up on a story he's made up to get away from home to visit the Countess, May questions him like she has no idea what he's talking about. `Oh never mind me, it's too complicated for me to understand,' she intimates with her large doe eyes and wan smile. It comes as no surprise to me that Ryder wrote an essay on this character in high school and got an A for it.
Wharton's message of doom is clear: the one who plays along with the lie we've all helped to create is the one who succeeds. May has her marriage, her children and a completely comfortable life. Archer is caught into a plastic marriage and separated from the one person who ever makes him feel alive. Olenska, feeling too threatened by those around her, is forced to make her home in Europe again, but far away from her husband.
Who would have thought Scorsese could do it? Well, myself for starters. Just because he's most famous for his gangster films doesn't mean that those are the only films he's capable of doing well. With projects like After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Scorsese has shown his capability with a wide range of cinematic genres; why stop him at the period-drama threshold? He drives the pace along with a slow but sure hand, never for a moment letting the film get carried away with itself.
Not to mention the atmosphere. There are moments during this movie I just couldn't breathe. No matter where in New York they go, Archer and the Countess are just never alone. They might seem to be, but even the hand-sewn curtains seem to have eyes (those eyes are all photographed by Michael Ballhaus, the man also responsible for the gorgeous Bram Stoker's Dracula a year before, also starring Ryder). The rooms with their overstuffed decorations and walls covered with numerous paintings loom over our protagonists with a close gaze; they're never trusted from the second they meet.
Real love is the answer, but no one can ever dare ask the question. Who knows what sadness Wharton knew to paint such a tormenting picture of true passion-between watching this and The Remains of the Day a week later, it's amazing I was able to leave my room for a year. No one escapes this doom, Wharton says: we either break the rules and are punished to death for it, or play by them and watch ourselves slowly perish on the inside. We become less human and more drawings of humans; we become as hollow, or shall we say `innocent', as the age around us.
Contemplative, but no less involving, is the core of this movie's visual attitude. With so much subtext just simmering underneath the events told in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, any other approach would have reduced the impact that its denouement reveals. Scorcese uses a tremendous amount of visual tricks to emphasize what or whom we should look at: spotlighting Pfeiffer and Day-Lewis as they enjoy a quiet conversation during the intermission in a play; overlapping series of fleeting images from snippets of correspondence between characters; slowing the action down for about five seconds in a key scene (when Pfeiffer gets up from her seat, crosses a room full of guests to go talk to Day-Lewis as Woodward narrates "It was not the custom for a lady to get up ... and talk to another man."). His technique forces us to really watch the story, to look for details, overt and covert, since like the opening montage of roses in bloom at the beginning of the credits, this is a movie of deep contemplation -- not because of the lush images, but because of the subtle game of tradition which is being played behind the curtains, just out of the camera's view. Nothing is what it seems, and in the exceptional case of Winona Ryder's incredibly sly portrayal of May Welland, that becomes true: she knows much more than her character reveals, and when she does so, it's only with a loving glance. She is aware of her husband's attraction to Ellen Olenska, and even casually feeds him into it, only to chain him to her at the end when all is revealed and nothing can be done. And this is what makes the movie so ultimately tragic and emotionally jarring: that true love is consciously allowed to be crushed in lieu of family tradition, which is the overwhelming hypocrisy of the people inhabiting Edith Wharton's timeless novel.
These two movies are not for everyone. If you want to see action and fast-paced filmmaking, you will find them boring. However, if you want to see the pinnacles of the careers of the two greatest directors of the second half of the 20th century, you will find them here.
Enough has been said about the plot and the acting in "The Age of Innocence". The bottom line is that for pure cinematic luster and beauty, the 90's offers only a single movie that can match "Barry Lyndon". Don't watch the clock, watch the film, and enjoy a departure and a triumph that proves the depth and confidence of Scorcese's skills.
Lastly, don't let anyone spoil the ending for you, and don't jump to conclusions. Think about it after you've seen the movie, savour it for a while and the understanding will come to you. This movie quite simply has the finest ending of any movie I have ever seen.
"The Age of Innocence" is the 10 that rises just above Scorcese's string of 9 1/2s. See it.
Years ago, I ho-hummed my way through viewing it, and I was so unimpressed, I can't tell you today whether I saw it in a theater or rented it at home. It has been in rather heavy rotation on the movie channels for some reason of late, and I watched it again a few weeks ago.
It simply left me breathless. I must have watched it twelve times over the last few weeks, and am dying to buy the DVD if it ever comes out. Scorcese calls this his "most violent film", and after seeing it again, alone, watching intently, it struck me how completely right he was.
The comments before mine are mostly right on target...I am in awe of the filmmaking and can't say enough about the dramatic subtleties, the opulent production values and the overall magnificent way the entire project was handled. Even the normally atrocious Winona Ryder excelled in a role that was simply a tour-de-force for her...the vapid but yet not so vapid after all May Welland. A masterpiece. Please see it if you haven't already.
Michelle Pfeiffer plays Ellen Olenska, a proto-feminist who flees from her failing European marriage to the home of her blood relatives in 1870's New York Society. She's been away for most of her life and the States are foreign to her, but she quickly realizes that she is viewed as threat, a black sheep ---and Society reacts to her as it would to a dirty black spot on a carpet or on one of their tuxedo shirts. "Harmony could be shattered by a whisper", as well narrated by Joanne Woodward.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer, an up-and-rising patriarch who sees something in her that no one else in his rich circle could offer him: an independent viewpoint to life. As a lawyer and a powerful member of his family, he bravely tries to protect Ellen from basically everyone, esp. members of their own family. Despite all of her difficulties, Countess Olenska refuses to part from her individuality: she smokes in front of Newland, does not hide from men in social situations, and criticizes her surroundings. Archer doesn't necessarily fall in love with her as a person but with what she represents: Romanticism and escape.
There is a lot to love about this film, which is more like a piece of art than a movie. Every scene and every bit of dialogue denotes elegance and brutality simultaneously. All of the leading and supporting characters are so believable and well formed that they trump anything Hollywood has been throwing at us in recent months. And the setting for this film is very unconventional, at least for the 90's. Through excellent film-making, I can see why Society felt the need to operate in such a ruthless fashion, in order to protect itself from Ellen and what she represented to Newland, its newly crowned prince.
Over the past few months, I have also grown an appreciation for Winona Ryder's performance as May. She is a shrewd politician, who uses her "bright blindness" as a megaphone for Society's rules of conduct, a weapon of manipulation against her destined husband Newland, and as a way to continue plotting without easily being detected.
I wonder how many more times I will watch "The Age of Innocence" before I risk being exposed to Hollywood's 21st century conformity, such as "Independence Day" or "Wild, Wild West". All I know is that Ellen Olenska (as one of my favorite cinematic heroines) serves to validate my own sense of individuality, and neither she nor the astonishing beauty of this Scorcese creation, will ever be boring. 10 out of 10 stars.
I thought Michelle Pfeiffer was absolutely superb. I don't follow her work much, but of what I do know, I find this to be her best - and most serious - performance to date. I was somewhat disappointed in Daniel Day-Lewis who I otherwise love to watch. I felt his performance was uneven. When he was "on", he was on, but at times his performance was stilted and even melodramatic which jarred his credibility. Wynona did a terrific job of portraying covert deviousness with a blank and/or airhead facade.
But what shone above all the acting was Scorsese's paintbrush. I'm so happy to see that he's still got it in him.
The actors are all very good, but Michelle Pfeiffer really delivers and excellent performance. Also Winona Ryder's character is well portrayed and towards the end of the movie, the actress is able to convincingly show how her character is much more layered than what it seems to be in the beginning of the story.
In my opinion this movie deserves 8
The Age of Innocence is Wharton's exploration into the finer details of New York high society circa the late 19th century. The focal character is attorney Newland Archer (played here by Daniel Day-Lewis), who is the walking personification of pristine high society. He is engaged to be married to the oh-so-acceptable May Welland (Winona Ryder), but then meets her "scandalous" cousin, the Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), a black sheep now that she has separated from her husband. Suddenly Newland's heart is all atwitter and he finds himself willing to risk his reputation and social standing to pursue her.
The central romance is strangely missing any romance, much less passion. Scorsese seems far more enamored of the set design, costumes and fancy finery, then he is with the people at the heart of the action. The majority of the people seem anemic, with possibly the exception of a feisty Miriam Margoyles, who seems far more scandalous than Pfeiffer with her loud and oddly hilarious outbursts. Lots of time is spent documenting the dinnerware, etiquette and bearing of the elites, to the point where one starts to cast longing gazes at their watch. And in case you don't get it, Scorsese has decided to include mind-numbingly obvious narration from the cultured tones of Joanne Woodward. Woodward's narration becomes increasingly intrusive to the point where it not only tells us that someone walks across the room (as though we did not witness it), but gives us insight into what people are thinking, as if this is not something the performances should be doing.
When not doting on the lovely china, draperies and lace doilies, Scorsese employs rather annoying camera tricks to open or close scenes, and gives us endless montages of hothouse flowers ripening in stop motion - to hint at the emotion roiling beneath the surface of these well-dressed mannequins. Oh, the depth!
Some of the acting is quite fine, even with the restrictions placed on it by the storyline. It is intriguing to watch Day-Lewis portray such an inhibited character as Newland Archer. We have some degree of sympathy for Newland, although he brings a lot of his misery on himself. However, we never have much respect for him, because at heart the character is incredibly weak and allows himself to repeatedly be at the mercy of those around him. Day-Lewis conveys a great deal of the frustration and angst of the character. Unfortunately, one thing that does not get conveyed is the longing and passion of his love for the Countess.
This last is certainly not all Day-Lewis' fault. Pfeiffer's scandalous cousin is such a jaw-dropping bore and played by the usually reliable actress with such lifelessness that it is impossible to understand how she can awaken longing in anyone. Pfeiffer, strangely resembling a young Lucille Ball here, carries herself ramrod straight with a slight air of discomfort, as though she was bothered by hemorrhoids. She delivers her lines either haltingly or breathlessly in a manner that strains patience. Were it not for the incessant reminders, we would detect nothing interesting - much less scandalous - about her. In fact, she hardly seems to be suffering as a pariah at all since she seems to chronically show up at all of the prime spots. Even worse, her character pales in comparison to May Welland, who is supposed to be the duller of the two women.
And here we have another of the film's faults. Winona Ryder is positively radiant as May and delivers one of her last great performances prior to becoming this generation's Hedy Lamarr and forgetting how to act. She does a fantastic job of portraying Archer's still waters run deep fiancée and often seems a far more intriguing love interest. When she senses the attraction between Newland and her cousin, she repeatedly offers him an out to launch his pursuit, which he fails to take her up on. Later, when Newland decides he wants an out at a far more inappropriate time, she does a grand job of insidiously psychologically closing off his paths for escape and ensuring his continued subservience to her, even if he is only going through the motions. Ryder's performance is really quite wonderful here and the fact that one remembers her character far more so than Pfeiffer's indicates a vital flaw in the piece.
Due to so much exposition and pontificating on the backdrops, the film is entirely too long for its slight story and it feels it. By the time it grinds to its predictable and emotionally muted conclusion, one is more than ready for the experience to be over. The final sequence with an older Day-Lewis offered the opportunity to once again meet and continue his relationship with Pfeiffer (with the approval of his now late wife) only to culminate with him sitting dumbfounded on a bench before walking away without meeting her ranks as one of the most pointless codas on a film. Truly, the film would have been more improved had Scorsese ended it following the final confrontation between Day-Lewis and Ryder.
A lovely looking film, but unless you are interested in seeing Scorsese direct a change-of-pace film or have a particular affinity for Wharton's wallows in misery, there is not a lot here to satisfy.
Mr. Scorcese does masterful camera work and evokes loving performances from all the performers, and yet I felt something staid and almost too respectful. Michelle Pfieffer seems to be the only actress who didn't fully embrace the period in manner or behaviour, but the rest of the performers aquit themselves wonderfully.
At times it almost felt a little 'modern', but one can't fault the film makers, they were only trying to update it a bit for their intended audience.
Altogether a wonderful film and definitely worth seeing, but - as always- the book remains far superior.
Unfortunately, not everything works. The story, another tragic tale of impossible love, has been done thousands of times before and didn't really hold my attention. Not bad, just more time to watch the pretty pictures. Anyway, I don't think Scorsese was really interested in the love story. It's more an analytical study of the behavior of people from that day and age, and as such it does work Daniel Day-pri Lewis ( a bundle of joy he is not) is perfectly cast as the frustrated Archer, but the actingprizes have to go to Michelle Pfeiffer. What a beautiful woman, what an amazing actress.
Apart from the New York setting, it's hard to perceive how Scorsese felt that he had an affinity for this material. The very first scene indicates a drastic mismatch. He employs split-second cutting, breakneck Steadicam zooms, and at one point I think he even fiddles with the camera speed: and for what? a scene at an opera house, attended by the elite of 1870's "Old New York". Look out, folks! -- it's Goodfellas-Meets-High Society! Jake La Motta is crashing the party! Clearly, Scorsese is terrified of losing our attention in this movie -- hence the endless succession of pointless stylistic flourishes throughout the 2-1/2-hour running-time. After the seventh Olde-Style iris fadeout, one starts longing for the simplicity, taste, and self-confidence of James Ivory.
In fact, Scorsese's adaption of Wharton's novel is a textbook case of Having No Confidence In What You Are Doing. The gimmicky direction is, of course, the sort of bluff and bluster typical of defensiveness. But the script, which treats the novel like a sacred text, also indicates a lack of confidence. Scorsese includes virtually every character from the novel, with incoherent results: half the time, we don't know which character another character is referring to. Too many names, too many characters to keep up with. (One of them, "Fanny Ring", is mentioned a dozen times in the movie, but we never meet her.) If one has read the book, one has an easier time of things . . . but I hadn't read the novel yet when this film came out a decade ago, and consequently had some difficulty following the thread of the fairly dense plot. While it's easy to keep things straight in Wharton's novel, the movie, by insisting on including EVERYTHING, must skim frantically over the backstory minutiae, ultimately leading to windiness in the script and confusion for the viewer. Even the dialog is lifted directly from the novel: this can sometimes be praiseworthy, but, given the context of this movie, it rather indicates that the filmmakers don't really have a point of view about the whole thing. They're copying sentences here, not forging an adaptation. Of course, it goes without saying that the movie fails to include the most important aspect of the novel, which is Wharton's cool ironic distance. The results are disastrous: the film brings the weepy ladies'-novel plot to the foreground, and pushes the thematic context to the margins. Again, one starts to appreciate the skilled adaptations of James Ivory.
Scorsese's lack of confidence is most glaring in the performances he gets from the principal actors. He reserves all the flourishes for himself, and allows Daniel Day-Lewis to turn in a zombified performance. Newland Archer may be a dilettante in Wharton's novel, but he most decidedly is NOT the automaton that Day-Lewis offers us here. It's disappointing that Day-Lewis, an actor of primal passions, miscalculates the role of Archer so badly, but there you have it. As for Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder: the former is miscast, and the latter just isn't any good. Bottom line: if Scorsese couldn't get the movie made without the use of "name" actresses whom he seemed unsure about, why did he bother? Just let James Ivory do the thing with Royal Shakespeare Company alumni, and be done with it.
Along those lines, one can take serious issue with the ultimate hypocrisy actuating this whole project. Scorsese, a very wealthy director, presumes to make some Big Statement or other about the very wealthy. And thus he hires a pair of very wealthy actresses to play the female leads; spends a fortune on set-design; employs expensive, up-to-the-minute film technology intended to wow us; spends an inordinate amount of time gazing fondly on an endless parade of expensive ball-gowns, haute cuisine spread upon imported china (the shad roe with cucumbers looked particularly delicious), chandeliers the size of Christmas trees, gold cigar-clippers, dazzling jewels, impeccable dancing gloves, Chippendale furniture, fur coats, snazzy velvet hats. . . . In other words, *The Age of Innocence*, far from criticizing this milieu, is completely seduced by it. It's a nauseatingly ostentatious motion picture.
A narrator is a fine and sometimes necessary thing when reading a novel. But when it comes to a movie, any narration should be kept absolutely minimal, and preferably there should be none at all. A film should be able to tell you everything it has to say with the actions and dialogue of its characters. If a narrator has to say it, then either the screenplay was lazily written or the director is not using the full potential of his/her cast. In this particular situation, I can only guess the former. It's as if someone did not want to go through the trouble to rewrite the novel into a proper screenplay and thus left far too much information to be conveyed through exterior narration.
I imagine I would have thoroughly enjoyed this film if the narration was removed. But as it stands, I could not get into it.
And the performance and pacing often leaden, which kills it.
It was as if the whole movie were one long funeral dirge. Which is not at all how the novel reads.
It is VERY hard to deal with a novel where most of the action happens in the thoughts of the characters, rather than in dialogue and action. Scorsese did not solve that dilemma here.
Yes, Wharton saw most of these characters as having superficial lives, but when they spoke their words, they spoke them naturally. But these actors, most of them, though very fine in other movies, deliver too much of this dialogue - which, I realize, was taken directly from the novel - as if they were not native speakers of English, or at least not native speakers of that English. It is, in short, the problem some actors have with Shakespeare. The great Shakespearean actors manage to deliver their lines with perfect naturalness. Too often, in this movie, the lines came off as very stilted.
There were lots of other problems as well. But, in general, it was all too funereal, too leaden. That is not the world Wharton paints.
What a shame to have wasted so much talent with so unimpressive results.