Movie Review: The Age of Innocence (1993)
“In a world of tradition. In an age of innocence. They dared to break the rules.”
The Age of Innocence (1993)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder
Synopsis: In 1870s New York, a young lawyer falls in love with the cousin of his betrothed, a woman who has scandalised society by separating from her husband.
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WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
Although, on the face of it, Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence would appear to mark a radical departure from his usual material, it does in fact share many similarities. As with his crime opuses, its story takes place within a closed society which is governed by a set of rigid social codes, and unforgiving of those who breach their boundaries. The gentrified aristocracy of 1870s New York high society might not wield clubs or guns, but, in a way, the punishment meted out to violators by its members is just as uncompromising. Nevertheless, this rarefied world of operas and dinner parties and country retreats seems a world away from Scorsese’s own Gangs of New York, which is set in the same city, and within a decade of the events depicted in The Age of Innocence.
Joanne Woodward’s wry, knowing narration guides us through some of the social conventions of ‘a hieroglyphic world whose inhabitants speak in code’ as we’re introduced to Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis – The Last of the Mohicans, In the Name of the Father), a successful young lawyer who is betrothed to society belle, May Welland (Winona Ryder – Dracula, The Iceman). May lives in a cocoon, protected from the realities of life by her privileged status, and possesses an air of innocence and purity by which Newland is mildly beguiled. However, he finds his well-ordered life thrown into turmoil by the arrival of May’s worldly, free-spirited cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer – Married to the Mob, The Family), whose break up from her husband has scandalised polite society. While his attraction to Ellen is reciprocated, Newland finds that the binds of social convention repeatedly frustrate their love.
Newland’s world is one in which genuine thoughts and true emotions remain largely unspoken, and an authentic recreation of such a society requires a reflection of this principle. Characters employ an oblique code, and speak in polite tones, to refer to subjects which remain unspoken beneath the veil of deceptive innocence to which the movie’s title refers. And so the plot, which might seem at times to lack impetus and be driven by random circumstance, is all the while fashioning an elaborate trap for Newland, to which he is blind until it is sprung on him. Its duplicity is personified by May, behind whose innocent facade beats the heart of a wily and manipulative young woman fully prepared to exploit the social codes to which Newland slavishly adheres in order to get what she wants. The genius of Jay Cocks and Scorsese’s script is that, even after repeated viewings, we know May has manoeuvred Newland into a position from which it is impossible for him to escape, even though she says and does nothing to betray herself.
Scorsese’s camera often dwells on Newland’s face, capturing those moments during which raw emotion buffets the wall of careful composure he is conditioned to maintain, and Day-Lewis, arguably one of the greatest actors of his generation, never lets his director down. Hiding emotion is a far tougher act to pull off than showing it, but Day-Lewis repeatedly cues us to the painful depths of Newland’s emotions through the narrow cracks in his carefully composed mask.
Fans of Scorsese’s more typical output might struggle with the leisurely pace and glacial emotions of The Age of Innocence, but those who appreciate subtle, nuanced drama will find much to admire from a movie which demonstrates that Scorsese is capable of more than violent crime movies.
(Reviewed 21st October 2016)