The Age Of Innocence
- Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer
- Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Ellen Olenska
- Winona Ryder as May Welland
- Richard E. Grant as Larry Lefferts
- Miriam Margoyles as Mrs. Mingott
- Joanne Woodward as Narrator
Martin Scorsese once described his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence as the most violent film he has made. When I read about this and viewed the film, I was unsure of what he meant. But then I realised, he didn’t mean actual violence but internal violence arising from conflicting emotions. Bringing this to the period romance, Scorsese succeeds in showing the arcane machinations of higher class society, the rigorous attempts to uphold tradition and the consequences of trying to challenge it as the main love story is played out. Sumptuous, acute and scathing in equal measure, The Age of Innocence is a welcome departure for Scorsese that emphasises his versatility.
In 1870’s New York, Newland Archer is a respected lawyer.He is engaged to May Welland, the seemingly naive and innocent daughter of a prominent family. The marriage is socially acceptable as it joins two of the most prominent families in New York. Although he obeys the many rules of this close society, Newland secretly resents the pressure and many social standards that have to be obeyed.As there engagement is announced, May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska arrives from Europe. She is unconventional and independent for a woman of her time, and the society immediately takes a dislike towards her. Her reputation isn’t helped when it is announced that she is planning to divorce her husband after an unhappy courtship. Although shunned by many, Newland becomes enchanted by her as she lives by her own rules and doesn’t conform to the oppressive demands of society. The two eventually fall in love, but can this relationship last against the iron will of rules and regulations enforced upon them?
Firstly, the camerawork used in the film is absolutely marvellous in the way it shows the minute details of decor and finery, whilst emphasising the struggle to survive in a world of tradition. Costume design is stunning, really capturing the sumptuous and prosperous attitudes and styles of the 1870’s. The evocative screenplay delves deep into conflicted emotions and reflects on the state of affairs apparent. The use of Joanne Woodward as the narrator is a stroke of genius, her voice filled with reflection, humour and pathos as she tells the story of Newland and Ellen. The main reason for the movie’s success is the three central performances by Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder. As the confused and troubled Newland, Day-Lewis exudes a weariness and desire to escape from social standards and cantankerous rules imposed on him. Michelle Pfeiffer adds luminous poignancy as the scandalous Ellen, showing her unconventional behaviour as an act of defiance but subtly revealing the melancholy inflicted on her by her marriage. It is Ellen who drives the story along, awakening a hidden fire that burns within Newland, with the desire to escape and live free of controlling influences. Unlike many period romances that feature copious amounts of bodice-ripping, The Age of Innocence instead focuses on the passion between the two in an emotionally restrained and tender way. When Newland slowly removes Ellen’s glove and gently caresses her face, there is more passion in that moment than in any of the explicit bedroom antics of the usual period drama. Rounding out the excellent troika is Winona Ryder as Newland’s wife May Welland. At first glance she appears to be naive, clueless and unsuspecting, but as the story moves on and because of Ryder’s subtly expressive face, we begin to see a young woman who isn’t as lily-white and innocent as her outward exterior would have use believe. This in turn makes her an interesting character to observe as the film goes on.
The only gripe I can think of that may put off some audience members is the slow and reflective pace at which the film runs. But in actual fact, it is more effective as it satirically observes hypocrisy and the cloistered attempts to uphold tradition with a scathing eye. Whether viewing it as a scathing account of society or a romance doomed by conflicting attitudes, The Age of Innocence is excellent either way, filled with pathos, reflection and a unscrupulous melancholy that haunts the mind.