The Age of Innocence (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), but their wedding date is not yet picked out. Both come from what is considered to be good families in nineteenth century New York. On the other hand, May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), is considered a pariah because she divorced her husband in Europe. Archer is convinced by those who still care for Ellen that he should be around her more often to make people feel less uneasy about being around her. As the two engage in conversations, Newland realizes that he is engaged to the wrong woman. While May offers stability, Ellen is exciting because deep down, like Newland, she considers formalities as mere trifles.
Based on Edith Wharton’s novel and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Age of Innocence” is a sumptuous feast for the senses. The love story between Newland and May and Newland and Ellen has resonance because there is an absence of a traditional villain where one character actively tries to steal’s someone’s heart with vindictiveness. Instead, the enemy is the times, the rules that define an era, and the social conducts that connect the leading players. Because traditionalism must be strictly upheld, there is little room for deviation from the norm. Even the characters who consider the New York society as a joke must to keep their opinions behind closed doors. No one wants to be like Ellen, the subject of toxic gossip.
When the camera moves, it does so with purpose. For example, as rules for behaving and important figures are introduced by the narrator, the camera scans the lavish walls and points our attention to things that range from paintings as they are, the implications of hanging up certain artwork for friends and family to see, to the paint’s color that serve as a background for the works of art. It feels as though the material is forcing us to be as critical as the men and women who inhabit such a world. By allowing us to think about how they think, we are able to navigate ourselves through their own games.
When the camera finally stops to observe a group of conversing people, we look at them with a more critical eye. For instance, we are able to evaluate how they rank compared to one another through their body language, gender, and the way they are dressed. The director’s decision to take his time in pocketing us into this era is critical because the eventual happenings in the story, especially toward the end, involve a deception through the mundane customary social gatherings.
The heart of the picture is Newland and Ellen’s forbidden love. With each secret meeting and delayed gratification of the flesh, the more we want them to be together even though they are having was an affair. By rooting for them to consummate their feelings, it is, in a way, an indirect act of rebellion against the conventions of those times.
Based on the screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, “The Age of Innocence” is pregnant with implications and excellent performances, even from supporting ones, particularly Miriam Margolyes as the influential but couch-ridden Mrs. Mingott. Good manners and warm smiles have never looked so poisonous.