[Film Review] The Age of Innocence (1993)

The Age of Innocence poster

Title: The Age of Innocence
Year: 1993
Country: USA
Language: English, Italian
Genre: Romance, Drama
Director: Martin Scorcese
Martin Scorsese
Jay Cocks
based on the novel of Edith Wharton
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Daniel Day-Lewis
Michelle Pfeiffer
Winona Ryder
Miriam Margolyes
Alec McCowen
Stuart Wilson
Joanne Woodward
Richard E. Grant
Geraldine Chaplin
Mary Beth Hurt
Jonathan Pryce
Robert Sean Leonard
Michael Gough
Siân Phillips
Alexis Smith
Carolyn Farina
June Squibb
Norman Lloyd
Rating: 7.9/10

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Opulence and emotional restraint might not be maestro Scorsese’s strongest suit, yet the oddity of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, a Gilded Age torrid but never consummated love affair setting against a silk stocking New York’s high society, gallantly taps into a rarefied sphere of patrician hindrances and underhanded intrigues, all presented with gorgeous, even florid mise-en-scène (courtesy of art director Dante Ferretti, marks his first collaboration with Marty) accentuating the paradoxical combat between one’s self-purported conscience and those intangible extrinsic forces.

The time is around 1870, Newland Archer (Day-Lewis) and May Welland (Ryder) are ostensibly the perfect specimen of an upper crust betrothal of gilded youth, but the unheralded advent of Countess Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer), May’s cousin, purveyed as the latest fodder for those snotty scandalmongers, because of her flubbed marriage, stirs Newland’s even-tempered facade.

Newland has carried a torch for Ellen ever since his childhood, and by announcing his engagement to May, they are practically in the same family. Ellen’s less guarded and more bluff carriage and outlook differentiates herself from the rest petticoat mindset and instantly tickles Newland to an immense degree. Unbeknownst to her, he pulls his back into sweeten the pill of her disgraced comeback with earnest succor, and tries to make the issue as less uglier as possible both for her and their family’s sake.

You see, Newland is a self-claimed nobleman, considers himself head and shoulders above those priggish snobs around him, but he is not hot to trot to challenge the status quo, at any rate, it is where he belongs, wallowing in luxury must have its adversities, toward which he can put on a disdainful face to feel superior. But, in the case of Ellen, he balks at his action because he caves in for his innate weakness which will put three people in the misery, that weakness is bred from a misconstrued illusion, as Ellen pinpoints at one stage: we all prone to do something which is convenient for us but not essentially what we want. They might have a happy ending at hand if Newland can right the wrong when he stills have time to spare, and there is nothing for Ellen to do under that specific circumstance when woman liberation is merely a tall tale.

Albeit the film’s ornate frippery, the leitmotif is rather simple, a love triangle at its center, May loves Newland wholeheartedly but also selfishly, she represents those who will do anything to maintain a flawless veneer of their matrimony and takes with pride as their biggest victory and life-long vocation where true love doesn’t matter at all, is it pathetic? On paper, yes, but in reality, it has its remedial effect one may find it hard to disabuse. Ryder becomes the sole recipient of an Oscar nomination among the cast (although kudos should also be duly given to Margolyes’ scrumptious turn as the immobile matriarch, droll at first glance, but evinces great compassion when she is given something meaty to chew on), and it is a subtle, insidiously calculated achievement, she seems to be the girl every man dreams of marrying, but only the one who gets her knows the distaste, one cannot say she is soulless, she might be someone else’s perfect match (fat chance though). But she knows all too well what she wants, to an extent that she can paper over all those visible interstices instead of relinquishing someone who doesn’t love her back.

Now, the third composite of the triangle, Ellen is a faded beauty, a tender soul, sometimes even too naive under those unfriendly surroundings, which Ms. Pfeiffer makes such an indelible presence here, her vulnerability is manifest, lugubrious, her Ellen is eternally bedeviled by loneliness, which makes Newland a bright beacon among the murkiness of her futurity, but she has no wiles, her only compromise is when she acquiesce to Newland’s paramour offer, which ultimately is scuttled, there is no alternative for her but to retreat to where she comes from, she is the typical damsel-in-distress but her knight-in-shining-armor is bogged down in his own inaction and qualms. This tragic tenor is what makes the film tick, and thanks to a minutely arranged coordination from its hardware department, the film triumphs that aim in spite of that 25-years-later coda comes off as saccharine to a fault, talking about poetic license.

An untypical Scorsesean offering, but built on an immaculate caliber (to say nothing of Ms. Woodward’s entrancing and soothing voiceover), THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is not a cheesy weepie even if sometimes it perilously runs to, in the main, it sheds more light on human foibles than we often give credits to those of its ilk, a gem of literary adaption inlaid with sumptuous artifice, perforce, that is a winning formula beckons appreciation.

referential points: Scorsese’s THE AVIATOR (2004, 7.4/10)e, NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977, 6.2/10); James Ivory THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993, 7.5/10).

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