Story of the manners and morals of New York society in the later 1800's, focusing on a handsome young lawyer who cannot decide between passion and propriety in his women. — Genre: Feature Film-Drama — Rating: PG — Release Dat... more »e: 3-APR-2007
Themis-Athena | from somewhere between California and Germany | 06/08/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Imagine living in a world where life is governed by intricate rituals; a world "balanced so precariously that its harmony [can] be shattered by a whisper" (Wharton); a world ruled by self-declared experts on form, propriety and family history - read: scandal -; where everything is labeled and yet, people are not; where in order not to disturb society's smooth surface nothing is ever expressed or even thought of directly, and where communication occurs almost exclusively by way of symbols, which are unknown to the outsider and, like any secret code, by their very encryption guarantee his or her permanent exclusion.
Such, in faithful imitation of Victorian England, was the society of late 19th century upper class New York. Into this society returns, after having grown up and lived all her adult life in Europe, American-born Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), after leaving a cruel and uncaring husband. She already causes scandal by the mere manner of her return; but not knowing the secret rituals of the society she has entered, she quickly brings herself further into disrepute by receiving an unmarried man, by being seen in the company of a man only tolerated by virtue of his financial success and his marriage to the daughter of one of this society's most respected families, by arriving late to a dinner in which she has expressly been included to rectify a prior general snub, by leaving a drawing room conversation to instead join a gentleman sitting by himself - and worst of all, by openly contemplating divorce, which will most certainly open up a whole Pandora's box of "oddities" and "unpleasantness": the strongest terms ever used to express moral disapproval in this particular social context. Soon Ellen, who hasn't seen such facades even in her husband's household, finds herself isolated and, wondering whether noone is ever interested in the truth, complains bitterly that "[t]he real loneliness here is living among all these kind people who only ask you to pretend."
Ellen finds a kindred soul in attorney Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), her cousin May Welland's (Winona Ryder's) fiance, who secretly toys with a more liberal stance, while outwardly endorsing the value system of the society he lives in. Newland and Ellen fall in love - although not before he has advised her, on his employer's and May and Ellen's family's mandate, not to pursue her plans of divorce. As a result, Ellen becomes unreachable to him, and he flees into accelerating his wedding plans with May, who before he met Ellen in his eyes stood for everything that was good and noble about their society, whereas now he begins to see her as a shell whose interior he is reluctant to explore for fear of finding merely a kind of serene emptiness there; a woman whose seemingly dull, passive innocence grinds down every bit of roughness he wants to maintain about himself and who, as he realizes even before marrying her, will likely bury him alive under his own future. Then his passion for Ellen is rekindled by a meeting a year and a half after his wedding, and an emotional conflict they could hardly bear when he was not yet married escalates even further. And only when it is too late for all three of them he finds out that his wife had far more insight (and almost ruthless cleverness) than he had ever credited her with.
Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize and the first work of fiction written by a woman to be awarded that distinction, "The Age of Innocence" is one of Edith Wharton's most enduringly popular novels; the crown jewel among her subtly satirical descriptions of New York upper class society. Martin Scorsese reportedly lobbied hard to bring the novel to the screen under his direction; and what at first looks like an odd match for the director of "Goodfellas," "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver" turns out to be a masterpiece of understanding of the intricate workings of this world; a visual feast splendidly realized by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and production and costume designers Dante Ferretti and (Oscar-winning) Gabriella Pescucci; reminiscent of a period tableau, where a dinner table's immaculate symmetry expresses society's outwardly perfect facade, a person's character is mirrored in the paintings they own, their house's interior decoration, the way they dress and the flowers they receive, and where, like in the novel, the protagonists' relationships are choreographed to coincide with the pivotal moments of the stage performances they attend, such as Charles Gounod's opera "Faust" and Dion Boucicault's play "The Shaughraun;" a rare feat of psychological insight into the novel's every character, from the three flawlessly portrayed principals (of whom only Winona Ryder won a Golden Globe and a National Board of Review Award, although all three of them would have been equally deserving) to the just as critical supporting roles, played by an all-star cast including Miriam Margolyes, who earned a BAFTA Award for her portrayal of unconventional society matriarch (nay, dowager-empress) Mrs. Manson Mingott, Richard E. Grant ("form" expert Larry Lefferts), Alec McCowen (scandalmonger Sillerton Jackson), Stuart Wilson and Mary Beth Hurt (disreputable financier Julius Beaufort and his wife Regina), Geraldine Chaplin (May's mother), Sian Phillips (Newland's mother), Michael Gough and Alexis Smith (society doyens Henry and Louisa van der Luyden), Robert Sean Leonard (Newland and May's son Ted), Jonathan Pryce (Olenski's secretary Riviere) and Norman Lloyd (Newland's senior law partner Letterblair).
Scorsese's movie is sometimes criticized for its use of a narrator (Joanne Woodward). But Woodward's voiceovers not only capture Wharton's subtly ironic tone to absolute perfection; her narration also provides a gentle frame to a story which could easily become fractured otherwise; or in the alternative, would have to include countless scenes merely to establish a certain atmosphere and social context without significantly advancing the storyline. On the whole, this is an all-around exceptional production, remarkably faithful to the literary original, and absolutely on par with the best of Scorsese's other works.
Also recommended: Wharton: Four Novels (Library of America College Editions) Edith Wharton: Vol 1. Collected Stories:1891-1910 (Library of America) Edith Wharton: Vol.2 Collected Stories 1911-1937 (Library of America) Henry James : Novels 1881-1886: Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians (Library of America) Henry James: Novels 1901-1902: The Sacred Fount / The Wings of the Dove (Library of America) Ethan Frome The House of Mirth Washington Square The Portrait of a Lady The Wings of the Dove"
A small masterpiece of smoldering unrequited passion
Linda Linguvic | New York City | 11/03/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This 1993 film, directed by Martin Scorsese, brings the Edith Wharton novel to life. Here it is -- all the social comment and smoldering unrequited passions originally intended by the author. And now it's in living color with academy award winning costume design reflecting New York society in the 1870s.Daniel-Day Lewis is cast as Newland Archer, the upper class young man in conflict between social convention and desire. Michelle Pfieffer plays the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has already defied convention by marrying a European and is further defying convention by leaving her husband and returning to New York. However, in spite of his attraction to the countess, Newland Archer marries the beautiful but seemingly simple May Welland, played by Wynona Ryder, whose outstanding performance won her an academy award nomination.The film is woven together by the excellent off-screen narration by Joanne Woodward, reading excerpts from the book describing the nuances of social behavior and unspoken thoughts of the characters. The entire package comes across as a small masterpiece. I loved the book, but there is nothing like actually seeing the ballrooms, the gowns, the dinnerware and the food. There is nothing like seeing how very subtle gestures of a glance, a raised eyebrow or a change in tone of voice can have so much meaning. And there is one scene in which Newland Archer struggles with the buttons of the Countess's glove that captures an erotic sensuality in a very special way.However, a book can be read over many days or weeks. It can be put down and thought about, the characters carried in the mind's eyes for a while. The subtleties and nuances have time to live with the reader. A film, however, must be watched all at once. And watching subtleties and nuances for a full 133 minutes can tend to be a bit boring. But film is film and a book is a book. It is not fair to judge them against each other. So keeping that in mind, I give this video an extremely high recommendation."
A BEAUTIFUL EXPERIENCE
Themis-Athena | 05/18/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Martin Scorsese has made a reputation of conveying the essence of the human spirit through images of toughness and violence. On the surface, The Age of Innocence seems about as far removed from films like Raging Bull and Goodfellas as east is from west. But look a little closer and you'll see that this is most definitely a Scorsese film. For it's the characters, and rightly so, that have always been Scorsese's "means to the end." In this movie, it is the characters and the potent tension building among them that takes center stage. The Age of Innocence could be compared to a sumptuous and lavish banquet. Elmer Bernstein's score is powerful and moves along in perfect counterpoint to cinematographer Michael Ballhaus's visuals and their vivid colors--the crimsons and yellows of voluptuous roses, the flashes of red and white that mark transition scenes, the full-course gourmet meals. The costumes and set design are so perfect that it's not hard to believe one has travelled back in time to nineteenth-century New York City. The Age of Innocence is an adaptation of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Edith Wharton. Set in New York City in the 1870s, America is, at that time, every bit as Victorian as England ever was and even a hint of immorality can bring ruin to a family. Enter Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) who has lived most of her life in Europe and is now attempting to escape from a disatrous marriage. Her first meeting with Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is quiet and proper, yet smoulders with yet-to-be-spoken desires, for Archer is engaged to Ellen's cousin, May (Winona Ryder). Archer's dilemma forms the core of the film: Should he "do what's right" and marry May, condeming himself to a life of boredom, or should he follow his passion and pursue the enigmatic Ellen, risking social and familial ruin? Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer are perfect in their roles and evoke understated, restrained passion to such a degree the audience accepts them immediately. Ryder's May is also surprisingly good. As an actress known for her "over-the-top" portrayals, as May, Ryder is quiet and demure and flawless in every way. The Age of Innocence a beautiful cinematic experience. Those who missed seeing it in a theatre have missed something special, for a movie as lush as this one fails to translate well to the small screen. Still, The Age of Innocence offers us something that doesn't happen very often and definitely should not be missed."
A flawed but stunning masterwork
Jay Dickson | Portland, OR | 11/17/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's greatest novel remains, despite its flaws, one of the most spectacular American literary adaptations ever filmed. Scorsese's fascination with the manners and mores of small inward-looking societies lent itself perfectly to this study, Wharton's most thorough study into the anthropology of Old New York: her fetishistic desctiptions of the porcelain table settings, home furnishings, and dress of the most elite members of the Manhattan aristocracy of the 1870s are fully realized in Scorsese's loving adaptation. There are sequences--in particular, the Beauforts' annual opera (stunningly orchestrated to Strauss's "Radetszky march" and "Kaiserwalz"), the two great dinner parties at the van der Luydens' and the Archers', and, most of all, the breathtaking archery contest at Newport--that are as classic as anything Scorsese ever filmed.Where Scorses seems to stumble, however, is with the acting of the film's central characters. Daniel Day-Lewis does a fine job of conveying newland Archer's neuroses and hesitations, but can't seem to bring off the dash the role requires: the awkward hats of the time don't suit him at all, and make him look as if he were once again playing Forster's Cecil Vyse. Michelle Pfeiffer, whom one might think was ideally suited to play the Countess Olenska, is often quite suitably enchanting in her beautiful Second Empire gowns, but also begins to exhibit the range of tics and mannerisms that marred so many of her performances after this time. (You can really see this in her "actressy" reading in a sledge of the telegram she sends Newland from Rhinebeck.) Fortunately, they're both offset by the stellar performance of Winona Ryder as May Welland: Scorsese gets her for once to underplay, and emphasizes her awkwardness in such a way as to make her character seem believably undesirable to her husband, despite Ryder's great beauty. (There's a breathtaking scene while she reads a telegraph to Newland from St. Augustine that conveys this superbly: as Ryder intones, against a hyperlush bank of flowers, her delighted expectations of her upcoming marriage to her fiancé, Scorsese zooms in on her cavernous mouth as if to show her as an omnivorous monster.) This is Ryder's finest hour as an actress."
Rich in details and emotion; the very best of Scorsese
Toshifumi Fujiwara | Tokyo, Japan | 12/08/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is perhaps the highest achievement of its director, Martin Scrosese. Those who thought the subject matter (New York high society in the 1870's) does not fit the director's universe doesn't really know neither what Scorsese's films are all about, nor what he is really good at.This must have been a great challenge for Scorsese; not only that the book (by Edith Wharton) is a truly great one by its own right, but also because everything that really happen in this story does not appear on the surface, but underneath it. Keeping his sharp observing eye on every each detail that constitutes this society, Scorsese re-creates beautifully this universe of beauty and hipocricy, and brings out the emotions that are hidden behind the brilliant gorgeous surface of the society.There are no visual violence in this film, but in deep, this is probably the most violent and the most painful of all Scorsese film. The emotional pain, the violent intention hidden beneath the code of manners is certainly expressed, for those who are careful and intelligent enough to really see what's going on.Production designer Dante Feretti (from Fellini and Pasollini movies) joins costumes designer Gabriella Pescucci to do a wonderful job in re-creating the gorgeous atmosphere of New York high society in the 19th century. Scorsese and his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus uses these sets and costumes so that the characters are entrapped surrounded by all those beautiful objects. Within this gold gilded cage of beauty, Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfiefer and Winona Ryder give the best performance of their career; subtle, yet a lot of emotion going on beneath.In most cases I hate pan-and-scanned VHS editions, don't even bother to buy one. But in the case of this film, which was shot in Super 35mm format, the anamorphic aspect ratio of the theatrical release version was created by masking the top and bottom of the full screen image. Scorsese says he tried so that both framing would work, and it does. The full screen VHS tape will allow you to see more details in sets, costumes and props, and offers you a different enjoyment than the theatrical release version. I am also looking forward to see a DVD edition of this beautiful film, with a lot of special features which would allow the audience to have deeper understanding of this obssessively detailed film. Waiting for the DVD edition to be released, I strongly reccomend the book "The Age of Innocence, a portrait of the film based on the novel by Edith Wharton" which incorporates the shooting script with photos of paintings and pictures that served as research materials . For the DVD, Scorsese's and Jay Cocks' commentary is a must. It would be great if some expert scholar of Warton's works would do an additional track as well, pointing out the meanings of the details that modern audience are rather ignorant about. This film is so rich it would be ideal to own it on tape or even better on DVD, because the you can see it over and over again, each time finding new striking details."