Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder
The Age of Innocence may very well be Martin Scorsese's most underrated movie. While his certified masterpieces like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets and Goodfellas are still spoken of with reverence sometimes bordering on worship, and even flawed, divisive work like Gangs of New York and The King of Comedy have their passionate defenders, his elegantly meticulous rendering of Edith Wharton's masterpiece seems to have been somewhat forgotten. This is a shame since, aside from being simply a great movie, it's also a near perfect adaptation of its source, one which captures the narrative scope of Wharton's story as well as its stylistic flourishes, translating them from the literary to the visual. It's a wonderful film, albeit one which begs the question: how does a film which boasts marvelous performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer end up with only one Oscar nomination for acting and see it go to Winona Ryder?
The Age of Innocence takes place in New York in the 1870s and turns on the relationships among the people of the upper echelon of society, who are so cloistered together that New York seems reduced to a small town. In particular, the story focuses on Newland Archer (Day-Lewis), a man who is firmly set within the hierarchy of his society, understands keenly the rules and customs of its functioning, and clings to those rules to bring order to the world, only to find his belief in them challenged by the discovery that the heart doesn't follow any rules. As the story opens, he's become engaged to May Welland (Ryder), who is as much everything that is expected of a young bride-to-be as Newland is what's expected of a groom-to-be. Quickly, however, their perfectly arranged world is disrupted by the arrival of May's cousin, Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer), who has lived for years in Europe and has been the subject of gossip in New York as a result of the scandals created by her husband's behavior. Having returned to New York, her intention is to divorce her husband, a Polish Count, a notion that the New Yorkers around her consider not just unheard of, but damn near apocalyptic in its implications.
With New York society politely shunning Ellen, Newland steps in to manipulate things as much as he can to gain her acceptance back into society, ostensibly for the sake of May and her family, so that the shame that has been attached to Ellen doesn't extend to them, but also because, in spite of his idealized vision of how people ought to behave and what people ought to do and feel, he is immediately attracted to Ellen. In a world where everything happens in the proper, expected way and social niceties unfold according to a certain ceremony and script, Ellen is someone who marches to the beat of her own drum and, though she is in certain respects unaware of the many small, subtle slights of which she has been the victim, she also sees things with the clarity of an outsider. Over time, Newland and Ellen fall in love, though he discourages her from going through with a divorce in an effort to save her from the social stigma, and she encourages him to go through with his marriage to May in the belief that, by advising her against divorce, he has indicated his lack of romantic interest in her. They are then separated for a time and when they are reunited - him now married to May, her still married to the Count - they have created a situation for themselves so impossible that it can only end in heartache.
On the surface, The Age of Innocence may not seem to have much in common with the other films in Scorsese's oeuvre, but it does share some similarities with some of his gritty, violent masterworks. Like, Goodfellas and The Departed, The Age of Innocence takes place in a world within the world, a tiny bubble of society that operates in accordance with its own set of rules and codes, many of them unspoken, and the failure to properly navigate them can result in removal (in the case of The Age of Innocence it figures as social exile; in the case of the others, death). The Age of Innocence is as much about putting a persona out into the world as is The Departed, the protagonists of both films ultimately finding themselves conflicted between how they're expected to behave and how they actually feel and want to behave, and though The Age of Innocence may be bloodless in the literal sense, the emotional massacre that takes place within it is evident in the climactic tableau, shot in such a way to suggest the transformation of May's flowing dress into the gush of blood pouring out of a fatally wounded Newland, who discovers that he's become like a chess piece being maneuvered around the board.
Although the film has a narrator (voiced by Joanne Woodward) just as the novel does, who explains certain things plainly and in a tone of bemused respect, Scorsese manages to do a lot visually to capture the undercurrents of the story. This figures in the way that Ellen attends a party in a red dress, a vibrant burst of color in a room where everyone else is wearing staid, conservative black, and in the way that the film is always pausing the forward thrust of the story in order to bask in the details of how the tables are set, how the food is arranged on plates, what artwork is on the walls and how those works are arranged together, replicating the novel's anthropological interest in even the smallest details and how they form the foundation that society is built upon. Photographed by Michael Ballhaus (Scorsese's cinematographer on After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Departed), The Age of Innocence is a film which is continuously finding different ways to express visually what the novel has the luxury of describing, in addition to capturing some strikingly beautiful images that make this one of Scorsese's most sumptuous films.
At the time of its release, The Age of Innocence netted five Oscar nominations: Best Costume Design, which it won, and Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Ryder for her portrayal of the outwardly guileless but secretly cunning May. While I'm sort of biased because I don't really care much for Ryder as an actress (mostly because I find her voice grating), I can't fathom how it is that she received a nomination and Pfeiffer, giving one of her best performances, did not (Day-Lewis' lack of nomination I can understand, as the film came out in the same year as In The Name of the Father, for which he was nominated). Ellen is a character who is talked about by others almost as much as she actually appears on screen, and Pfeiffer gives a performance that successfully alternates between playing into what is being said and repudiating it, between dismissing the rules of society as silly play acting that has no real meaning and suffering for the way that she is expelled from society every time she takes a wrong step, between encouraging Newland's passion for her as a reflection of her own for him and restraining herself for a whole host of reasons. It's a multifaceted and superb performance, matched at every turn by Day-Lewis. The Age of Innocence may never be treated with the same kind of awe as some of Scorsese's other works, but it's a film which has held up extremely well and deserves to be considered in the top tier of his filmmography. It may be more gentle than many of his other films, but it's just as much a masterpiece.