The year was 1993 and Martin Scorsese had just directed Cape Fear which was the follow-up to one of his most acclaimed films, Goodfellas. He was also about to direct another well-received film, Casino. But in 1993 he had set his sights on adapting an Edith Wharton novel (a romance!) into a feature film, The Age of Innocence. Of the picture Scorsese later remarked, “It is the most violent [film] I’ve ever made”.
In 1993, Martin Scorsese adapted The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton together with former film critic Jay Cocks. Scorsese has called the film the most violent he’s ever made.
Today for Movie Treasures Rediscovered I’ll be offering what I consider to be a Scorsese master work for a rediscovery. To this point at MTR I’ve offered for your consideration several films that I enjoy. But with The Age of Innocence I will be venturing, for the first time, into suggesting a film that I absolutely adore. My personal view is that The Age of Innocence is one of the finest films ever made, one of Scorsese’s most completely overlooked movies, and a picture that was heavily underestimated upon first release. Today, almost 30 years after it first appeared, the film has enjoyed an increase in appreciation which I believe is entirely warranted.
And what of the extreme violence alluded to by Scorsese himself? After all, this is a director that gave us Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman not to mention the above Cape Fear, Goodfellas and Casino. Obviously these are all films that explore some level of extreme physical violence and yet the director called a 19th century romance with nary a harsh word uttered his most violent. Clearly the “violence” referred to by the master filmmaker is on a deeper, more internalized and emotional level. And the result is a powerfully compelling and heart stopping story of repressed desire and forbidden love. It’s this silent anguish that gives the film its poignant bite and keeps me returning as a viewer again and again.
With pristine attention to every detail director Scorsese presents us with the detailed world of Newland Archer’s existence and the social restraints and expectations placed upon him by his position.
Scorsese and Jay Cocks, a former film critic, collaborated to adapt the screenplay for The Age of Innocence from the original novel by Edith Wharton. This source material had been written by a woman who was born of the society that is depicted in the book and eventual movie. And it smacks of absolute authenticity in every painstaking detail. When creating the screenplay and directing the film, Scorsese seized on this intimate detail to give the film its foundation and it’s these tiny details of the culture that makes the film so incredibly mesmerizing.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer, a young New York City lawyer from a family that is acceptable to New York City’s social elite of the day. When we are first introduced to Archer, it is on the night he announces his engagement to May Welland (played by Winona Ryder) herself a member of an upstanding NYC family. It is also the evening that a certain Countess Olenska (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) has returned to the City after fleeing her loveless marriage to a Polish Count in Europe. We meet all three first at the Opera, a performance of Gounod’s Faust, and then later at a social gathering (the annual Beaufort Opera Ball) where the engagement is announced. It is an exquisite opening sequence on which the rest of the film is delicately arranged. The inclusion of Faust is important as the Faustian bargain is one that Archer flirts with throughout the story.
The film begins at the Opera – what American high society deemed socially appropriate entertainment – at a performance of Gounod’s Faust. The plot of Faust is the perfect backdrop to open a story about a man who eventually has his choice made for him.
I won’t give away more about the story here because, as I’ve said before, my intention is to convince you to watch it for yourself. I also want to endeavor to be very up front that this is a movie that revels in silent moments, in extremely subtle details, and in long luxurious transitions. On the outside one might say that The Age of Innocence is slowly paced, but for me the plodding approach belies a burning fire lurking just beneath the surface. It is here that one finds the extreme violence that Scorsese was referring to when comparing this film to all of his other pictures.
So, yes. My hope today is to persuade you to give this film a chance and to do so look no further than these Five Reasons –
1. Joanne Woodward narrates as the voice of Edith Wharton
Legendary actress Joanne Woodward is never seen in The Age of Innocence but her voice is everywhere in the movie. She narrates throughout and brings a dispassionate, almost detached emotion to the reading which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film. Scorsese so enjoyed her take on the narration that he recorded her audio first and then planned shots around the cadence and style of her delivery. The result creates the feeling of masterful storytelling from an accomplished writer. I usually dislike movies with heavy narration, but in The Age of Innocence the technique is utilized to perfection and I can’t imagine the film without it.
The Age of Innocence did receive five Oscar nominations and actually won for Best Costume Design. Every aspect of the production is meticulously constructed to envelop the viewer in the upper class era of the film.
2. The master filmmaker is at work
I’ll admit that I am a sucker for Martin Scorsese’s films anyway. Even pictures that are lesser appreciated like Shutter Island, Gangs of New York or The Color of Money to me have much to recommend them. There are several and many reasons for this respect but the greatest of them is his precise approach. There is no detail that escapes the director’s eye. In The Age of Innocence this is on full display as the movie is all about detail. The food, the clothes, the flower arrangements, the style of language, the architecture, the art – all of it a servant to the era and time that gives the film its authenticity and truth. These characters are acted upon by the standards and expectations of the culture from which they derive. Every ounce of that culture is presented for the viewer to see and to understand why these characters have almost no choice but to act as they do.
When you watch the film, whether for the first time or on repeat, take notice of details so subtle as to almost escape attention. The flash of yellow when Newland sends roses to Ellen. The sneak shot of the burning fire as Ellen and Newland speak in surface emotions. The way that Mrs. van der Luyden carefully looks at her husband while he is speaking as though she is hearing a God-like pronouncement. I could go on and on but my point is that Martin Scorsese brought all his skill to The Age of Innocence and it shows.
Even the remotest detail of New York society was depicted with pinpoint precision. The result brought The Age of Innocence its anchor in reality.
3. OK, yes, the lead performances are pretty darn good
I’ve gotten this far into the essay and have said hardly anything about some pretty exceptional performances. And that’s certainly a disservice. The three leading actors – Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder – are all excellent in the film. I have long been a particular fan of DD-L and enjoy almost every one of his films but I rank his performance in The Age of Innocence as one of my very favorites (Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood and Lincoln topping the list). Ms. Ryder too is completely convincing in the role of May and her performance earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. But among the leads my highest praise I have saved for Ms. Pfeiffer. There are only a handful of Michelle Pfeiffer films that I care for, but as the Countess Olenska her performance is as sensational as the role calls for. It is not merely her beauty that gradually wins Archer’s heart but her entire being and Ms. Pfeiffer’s performance is a wholly believable personification of that character. Without this crucial element, the tortured romance of the story simply wouldn’t work.
As Mrs. Catherine Mingott, Miriam Margolyes is simply perfection in The Age of Innocence. She shines in every scene in which she appears and was certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination herself. Alas, the nomination for Ms. Ryder probably sealed her fate as an also-ran.
4. Miriam Margolyes as Mrs. Mingott almost steals the show
I say “almost” because, well, she doesn’t. The rest of the performances in the film are also of the highest quality and serve the story incredibly well. In fact, the remainder of the supporting cast is also electrifying – Richard E. Grant as Larry Lefferts, Alec McCowan as Sillerton Jackson, Stuart Wilson and Mary Beth Hurt as Julius and Regina Beaufort, Michael Gough and Alexis Smith and Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden, even Norman Lloyd as Mr. Letterblair – and are integral to the success of the film. But Ms. Margolyes performance is simply breathtaking and is cut from the whole cloth of the era. I particularly enjoy the scene where May is showing off her engagement ring to her Grandmother. It’s when we first meet Mrs. Mingott and where we learn of the strength and influence of the great lady for the first time.
The story hangs on the presumption that a man steeped in the social mores of his day would at once throw it all aside to be with the woman his heart desires. Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Olenska fills this role in The Age of Innocence to perfection.
5. What I lovingly refer to as “The Shot”
I usually save this slot in my Five Reasons for a moment I particularly love in the film that I am writing about. And for The Age of Innocence it will be no different except to say that my love for this moment in this film surpasses my love for any other moment in any other film, ever. That’s right, I’m talking about my favorite movie shot of all time. So naturally I have to include it on this list.
The shot I am referring to comes early in the film as May Welland and her Mother are attending the Opera. At first they are joined in their box by May’s cousin the Countess Olenska as they observe both the opera on stage and the audience in the seats below them. Eventually Newland Archer comes to the box as well and sits near the Countess where they speak briefly to each other. It seems they grew up together before the Countess had gone to Europe to marry and they are recalling their childhood. At one specific moment, the Countess refers to remembering everyone as children “in knickerbockers and pantalettes” and uses her fan to gesture towards the audience below them. The camera follows the sweep of her arm and pans across the audience.
That’s it. That’s “The Shot”. And I love it, I simply love it. If you watch closely in the trailer (which is below) you will see the briefest moment of “The Shot” for yourself.
With every single painstakingly created moment, director Martin Scorsese infuses The Age of Innocence with an aching passion that ultimately goes unfulfilled. Or does it?
I’ll admit my love for “slow” costume movies and acknowledge that The Age of Innocence may not be for everyone. But for anyone that is willing to take a journey that plumbs the depths of romantic human emotion, than this is the film for you created by a true cinematic legend. Enjoy!
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