22nd Mar2018

‘The Age of Innocence’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard E. Grant, Stuart Wilson | Written by Martin Scorsese, Jay Cocks | Directed by Martin Scorsese


After the sprawling brutality of Goodfellas and the operatic horror of Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese dove into this adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920s novel, which is set amongst the society darlings of 1870s New York. This time, the weapons are words and the gunfire sounds like whispers, but it has a violence all its own.

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is engaged to May (Winona Ryder) – happily, on the surface. Then May’s Polish cousin, Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives in town. She has (relatively) unkempt hair and an unkempt manner, speaking truths to a buttoned-up social elite. The victim of an unkind marriage, she’s shamed as an outcast. Newland sympathises with Ellen. He also fancies the pants off her. But Newland has his family’s reputation to consider. Meanwhile, Ellen’s horrible husband wants his wife back; he intends to buy her soul for “a considerable price” and Ellen is tempted to sell it, especially if a life with Newland is off the table.

Newland hurtles inexorably toward a future he doesn’t want, his passion for Ellen leaving him stupefied. He and May marry and go on a world tour. We get the romantic honeymoon montage, but instead of hand-in-hand, May’s hands are statued in stone by a fine artist, which says it all. Over the months and years, Newland occasionally sees Ellen again. The flame burns for their forbidden love. Sexual tension bristles. Time and again Newland almost tells May his secret, but she has an uncanny knack of damping his powder before the words fire. Can this love triangle of Newland’s making ever be reconciled?

The subject matter might be gentler, but what carries over from Scorsese’s earlier movies is his ever-moving eye. Scorsese invigorates the society functions with a dizzying flow – an early scene in a crimson corridor is virtually the spit of his famous club entrance tracking shot from Goodfellas. In the final act, he jumps generations by turning the camera on the spot, like a clock arm observing a great swathe of time. But smartly and paradoxically, Scorsese stultifies the chamber scenes – where intimacy is just under the surface like a delicate crème brulee – by halting the frame dead.

There’s a bit of Max Ophuls in the tracking shots and a bit of Fritz Lang in the cranes, but the editing is uniquely Thelma Schoonmaker. At one point Ellen looks into the camera, giving us an almost contemptuous look for our curiosity, and the screen fades to red, out of rage and scandal.

The use of colour is brilliant and bold throughout – especially important in a world where the choice of sandstone or red brick can say a lot about one’s standing. When Newland goes to buy his fiancé flowers, he also buys yellow roses for Ellen. Sunshine, joy and warmth – but a colour also connoting the sickness that will consume him.

Ryder plays May superbly: the wife who knows of her husband’s secret fantasy. May gives Newland the option of acting upon that fantasy, and then accepts he’ll live with a heavy heart. May is the real hero of the story.

When I first saw the film, I was distracted by the robotic performance of Day-Lewis. Now I understand that he is an automation at society functions, or when talking with his wife. Anytime he’s pretending, basically. Watch how his range of expression expands around Ellen, like the aspect ratio of his experience is widening.

This is really a story of the trials of women of the time, seen through a male lens. Ellen is imprisoned by convention, while May is forced to accept her husband’s infidelity, in order to retain family order. Newland is the least of the victims in this scenario. He’s quite cruel. “Such depths of feeling,” he says of May, “coexist with such absence of imagination.” But of course her imagination is more capable than he thinks.

That universal feeling that we are more or less guided by social conventions as much as individual whim: period dramas make that feeling literal. The toughest sell is convincing us that the love we’re witnessing transcends such conventions – is it worth the pain it causes? Is Newland not simply a pompous cog in a privileged machine, injecting excitement into his ordered life by refusing to let go of a juvenile crush? Questions which make me wonder if The Age of Innocence is romantic at all, and not anti-romantic.

Sumptuously and tragically scored by Elmer Bernstein (with a bit of Enya thrown in for good measure – it was the done thing in 1993), The Age of Innocence is a diversion for its director. But this is no jarring jolt like Stanley Kubrick’s from A Clockwork Orange to Barry Lyndon; the Scorsese flair is up there on the screen, and Schoonmaker’s inimitable editing splices it together excellently. It’s a bittersweet love story, for sure – don’t expect to be swept off your feet – but also an intelligent and absorbing one.

Extras include a discussion between Scorsese and filmmaker James Kent about the task of adapting Wharton’s novel; an interview with writer Jay Cocks; Antonio Monda, artistic director of the Rome Film Festival, talks with production designer Dante Ferretti and Oscar-winning costume designer Gabriella Pescucci; “Innocence and Experience”, a making of documentary from 1993; and the theatrical trailer.

The Age of Innocence is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.


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