Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer
After vigilantism, boxing, religious and gang violence, Martin Scorsese takes on the brutality the unspoken, the shredding silence of an attraction you can’t pursue. Never since the protagonist’s unspoken emotions in Barry Lyndon have I seen a film of such emotional quietude, another picturesque period piece where traditions are flaunted, and overcome our souls’ desires. Taking place in New York, like any beloved film of Scorsese, it is under the facial expressions by candlelight that we see the many colors of spite, jealousy, lust, dismay, and forbidden love. Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of his many iconic performances as Newland Archer, a man who on the surface has it all but feels like a hopeless beggar.
Based off the wonderful Edith Wharton novel, The Age of Innocence presents the world of upper-class New York, a seemingly ideal one. The people pass their time by reading poetry, attending the opera, eating fancy dinners and spreading gossip. In the center of this, a product of the customs and environment, is Newland Archer, engaged to the lovely May Welland, played by Winona Ryder. Underlying sadness is unearthed however, when Welland’s cousin Ellen Olenska comes home, after a disastrous marriage to a Polish Count. As he helps finalize the formalities of Olenska’s divorce, a reluctant Archer finds himself garnering feelings for the Countess.
So we see Archer navigate these new emotions, and simultaneously deal with his upcoming marriage. Its almost impossible to write a review for this film without lauding its performances. I hardly recognized Day-Lewis from his roles as Daniel Plainview, “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, or Reynolds Woodcock. He speaks as if he holds back his entire being and not a single character seems to notice or care. Winona Ryder plays May Welland with a particular sweetness; we don’t resent her, and at no point does she seem petty or jealous, we simply feel sorry for her. Michelle Pfeiffer carries emotional baggage in her facial expressions and delivery dialog, and in one pivotal scene between her and Day-Lewis, they both display a romantic catharsis that other entire films don’t achieve.
Like Barry Lyndon, this film comes with narration, in this case by the serene Joanne Woodward. But one thing Kubrick and Scorsese have in common is that they understand their circumstances for narration; they use the omniscient voices from no one to provide exposition, sure, but also to contribute to the tonal nuance of the film, to remind us more of the socialite setting, give us more the feeling of reading a novel, and to present a world in which feelings are unspoken by characters. Scorsese doesn’t use it as a crutch, or employ narrative laziness.
In fact, readers can look at The Age of Innocence from a directorial standpoint and appreciate the way it immerses audiences into the novel’s world. There are many long takes of the high society buildings and tracking shots through the rooms full of characters well-dressed and groomed to perfection, truly bringing us into their world. There’s a beautiful yet brief fantasy that Archer has in which Olenska comes behind him and embraces him, only for him to turn around and find her sitting on the couch as she was before. There’s validation in the slightest of glances, the smallest of touches. It’s all Scorsese needs to translate the feeling of the novel. It reminds me of the more recent Inherent Vice, which purposefully created confusion to create the convoluted and “stoned” feel of its source material and, like The Age of Innocence, employs narration with some dialog coming straight from the novel.
Generally, I find there to be a certain laziness to many period pieces that take place in settings similar to that of The Age of Innocence. Certain writers and filmmakers feel they can pass off a semblance of class with high-brow terminology in their dialog and fancy costumes. But films like The Age of Innocence show hope for this genre, and show that passion can still be invested in the process of making fine pieces of drama.