Our tale is set in New York City, with the social caste system of the times taking centre stage in tandem with the inner workings of a calculated menage a trois that attempts to go against the flow of the strata that permeates Mrs. Astor's Four Hundred of the Social Register. Money, position, beauty, moral values, love, lust and a pecking system guaranteed to peel the paint off a surface. What more could anyone ask for? This story takes place, not in the present, but in New York of the 1870's, when such things meant a great deal more than they do now. Cries, whispers, lies and innuendos all echoed in corners and asides, implied, but never spoken; all harbingers of people with too much time on their hands and knowing precisely how to use it.
Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis) has become engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), a naive simpleton (or is she?), who worships the ground he walks on; someone who has no other goal in life other than to marry, have children and be a good wife. Newland, though, is a consummate opposite, someone who has always questioned propriety in private, but goes through the motions of agreement in public. While he is somewhat content to walk the path laid out for him with his law practice and his imminent marriage, a seed of wanderlust has been planted that will be watered through the introduction of May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) into the equation. While this presentation may have happened at any time, in any time period, for whatever reason, it works marvelously here.
From the opening credits, presented with a rich fullfillment by Saul and Elaine Bass, of old lace and flowers as they bloom, we are entering a world that has ceased to be as we know it. The stiffling, genteel, upper class plateau has permitted a 'look, but don't touch' feel to it, and the audacity of a presumed affair is enough to rock the planet society inhabits off its axis. Everyone plays their part on a daily basis, going through the motions expected by their peers; with each day leading to the inevitable cesation of existing permanently. While the elite would have the lower echelons believe that they themselves were above reproach, human desires and longing were always just as apparent with them as anyone else.
Martin Scorsese has managed to portray, with heartaching accuracy, the America of The Gilded Age, where millionaires reigned supreme and money was to be had for those willing to take a gamble, or have the good 'fortune' to inherit 'old money'. Edith Wharton, upon whose novel this film is based, was herself a blue blood, and she described this world as 'a hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said, or done, or even thought'. While New York society pretended to ignore the base nature of humanity, they hungered for the gossip that slipped in profusion from the lips of people such as Larry Lefferts (Richard E. Grant) and Sillerton Jackson (Alec McCowen), so as to appear impervious themselves.
The story is a simple one. Boy meets girl, falls in love, meets second girl with problems but loves her all the same, and has to figure out how to make it all work or fall into place. What makes this film so vastly different, though, is the attention to detail that Scorsese has paid to it. Research galore that is so very apparent in each and every scene, belies a fulfillment wanting to convey precisely the context and precision of the moment being portrayed to us.
Daniel Day Lewis is superb as one caught in the grips of love, betrayal, submission and the valley of indecision. Will he stay within the stranglehold of his station and marriage, or will he take action and abscond with the beautiful countess? His portrayal as a 'caged animal', hemmed in by the social mores of his age are played for effect with perfection.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen, has never been more ravishing and delicious, both in her appearance and her performance. Her beauty sets off Gabriella Pescuccsi's period costumes with exhileration. Ellen's own escape from her outlandish and despicable husband in Europe, her return to America and a society willing to tolerate only so much, make her a perfect match for Archer as a sort of 'comrade in arms' against the stagnation that he sees himself wallowing in.
Winona Ryder, playing the innocent, May, is more subtle than she initially lets on. She is everything that represents the best of New York society, and with each passing day, she becomes more of an albatross around Newland's neck. Before the end of the film, though, she will prove her mettle and forever seal his fate in the process.
The Age of Innocence is sprinkled with a marvelous supporting cast. Alexis Smith (in one of her last roles) and Michael Gough as the van der Luydens, the imperious couple to whom New York brought their troubles and concerns to and whose word was considered as 'final', Miriam Margolyes as Mrs. Mingott, the dowager empress of the intertwined family trees, Stuart Wilson as Julius Beaufort, the outsider with a shady past who marries into his station with Regina Townsend as played by Mary Beth Hurt, are all mixed into this batter, with the above mentioned roles of Richard E. Grant and Alec McCowen. You have a confection that is as discriminating as a Roman Punch and just as potent.
Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus has never shown itself to be lovlier than here and the rich, dark, subtle textures and warmth emitting its rays from the screen draw us into each frame as it denotes a new and exciting scene. Set direction by Robert J. Franco and Amy Marshall, combined with art direction by Speed Hopkins, are a winning combination and contribute mightily to the look and feel of turn of the century New York. The antiques, the placement, jewelry, Tiffany, Galle, Pairpoint, Marjolle, the paintings: Alma Tadema, Landseer, Bierstadt, Morris, Bougeureau, Turner, marvelously appointed homes; and the list goes on and on.
Elmer Bernstein's gorgeous score, evoking a sensuality befitting a summer's day of serene beauty, underscored with the heartbreak of lover' emotions, parallels a fascination with a marriage made for our benefit to compliment what we are seeing on the screen.
There has been some complaint that The Age of Innocence was a slow, tedious film, but this objection comes from those who fail to see the bigger picture. It is not meant to be fast, with every frame racing past us for our perusal at breakneck speed. Life was lived at a much more sluggish pace then, it was deprived of the 'get it going this minute!' approach. Scorsese's direction is measured and computed to show us precisely just what society wanted us to see -- great wealth and how to use it.
The scenes of love are titillating to watch. The sexuality that is based on the premise of 'less is more', is apparent in utter simplicity as we watch Newland unbutton the glove of Ellen in a carriage and that wisp of a wrist as it beckons his complete attention and the drawing of it to his lips and the eventual grasp of the lovers to one another. No ripping of bodices, no gyrations on a bed, no hint of a breast, no foul language to ruin the moment -- all wonderful deletions that would have fouled the production.
Scorsese has given us an opulent production, a story that shows us how any hint of noncomformity is squashed like a bug, all because it goes against the fabric or grain as set down by those 'in the know'. If we break the rules, we perish into that vast wasteland of non-ness; or, if we go by them, we still wither away from lack of said nonconformity. Either way, we lose.
Scorsese has a masterpiece on his hands, and we are richer for it.
American writer and director who emerged as one of the brightest and most vital of the generation of filmmakers who came to prominence during the 1970s with his heartfelt, vivid and at times lurid works. After deciding against joining the priesthood, he turned to his other passion - movies - and started with short efforts at film school until Roger Corman hired him to direct Boxcar Bertha.
However, it was New York drama Mean Streets that really made Scorsese's name as a talent to watch, and his succeeding films, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (which won Ellen Burstyn an Oscar and is the only Scorsese movie to be made into a sitcom) and the cult classic Taxi Driver (starring Robert De Niro, forever associated with the director's work) only confirmed this.
In the nineties, Scorsese began with the searing gangster saga Goodfellas, and continued with the over-the-top remake of Cape Fear before a change of pace with quietly emotional period piece The Age of Innocence. Casino saw a return to gangsters, and Kundun was a visually ravishing story of the Dalai Lama. Bringing Out the Dead returned to New York for a medical tale of redemption, and Gangs of New York was a muddled historical epic.
Still the Best Director Oscar eluded him, but the 2000s gave what many saw as his best chance at winning. Slick Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator didn't make it, but remake of Infernal AffairsThe Departed finally won him the prize. Outlandish thriller Shutter Island then provided him with the biggest hit of his career after which he surprised everyone by making family film Hugo - another huge hit.
This was followed by an even bigger success with extreme broker takedown The Wolf of Wall Street, and a return to his religious origins with the austere, redemption through torture drama Silence. He also directed Michael Jackson's Bad music video.