Age of Innocence review by Matt Fuerst


Martin Scorsese tells us in his book "Scorsese on Scorsese" that it took him 7 years to read Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence after friend and collaborator Jay Cocks gave him a copy. At the time (1980) Scorsese would often talk with Cocks about his desire to create a true period piece that would allow him to really flex his filmmaking muscle. Cocks thought Wharton's Pulitzer Prize winning book, with it's intricate detail of the strictly regimented lives of New York socialites in 1870's New York would be perfect for Scorsese's vision. Scorsese reflects on the 7 year delay with delight, noting that in '80 he wouldn't have been ready to bring Age of Innocence to the screen. Time, and maturity, even for Scorsese who was already a celebrated filmmaker (with Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore amongst others under his belt) brought Scorsese the perspective, and probably the clout to properly bring Wharton's words to the screen.

Age of Innocence follows Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) as a member of the upper crust in society. We learn pretty quickly that members of this clique may have the financial ability to break free from the worries of the world, but they live in a world that is more rigid than the working man experiences. Newland senses the hypocrisy of the situation, but by himself isn't strong enough to do anything about it other than quietly know life could be better. The film begins with Newland attending the annual showing of Faust at the Opera house. While Faust is put on every year, this year is special for Newland as his is announcing his intention to marry May Welland (Winona Ryder). We are quickly introduced to the other main player in the Opera house setting, May's scandalous cousin Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). As the story proceeds we watch as Newland becomes more entangled in Ellen's affairs, as she is intending to divorce her husband, a philandering Polish prince, and Newland is her lawyer. In spite of his love for May, Newland cannot help but be drawn to Ellen. For all of May's timid, passive nature, Ellen is the counterpoint. Ellen, while growing up privileged, is not particularly refined nor willing to play within the rules of her peers.

Amongst the three players, situations arise and fall with repercussions from each meeting. Newland continues to taunt himself by demanding attention from Ellen, all while pressing May to move up their wedding sooner, or even elope. However, the rules by which they live will not allow for either to happen, and Newland find himself struggling under the ties that bind him. Ellen continues with her personal struggles. Feeling a bit of liberation from her husband, she demands to be truly free from him via a divorce, but doesn't consider the implications of a divorce amongst society. Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson), is already actively courting Ellen, who in spite of a small allowance, needs someone like Beaufort to make her lifestyle comfortable. Beaufort isn't comfortable with a mere friendship however, and hounds Ellen much to Ellen and Newland's dismay.

The theme behind Age of Innocence is that of choices, the choices we make in life, and the consequences we must live with due to them. However, what we see presented to us on the screen is so much more than that. Scorsese really went over the top with both the planning and execution of Age of Innocence. The food, the dress, the sets, the art, the flowers. Saying they play an integral role in the film would almost be a cliche, and not truly giving credit where credit is due. The production on the film plays as important of a role as Daniel Day-Lewis or even Martin Scorsese himself. The rigidity, clean lines and mechanical actions during dinner are completely planned out and executed as if a conductor was on site keeping time. It's obvious from the title shot, that flowers are going to be integrated into the film. There are shots that simply can be explained by saying that Scorsese shot them with such beauty simply because he could. When watching Age of Innocence today this is the easiest conclusion to come to, but we must remember that the players in this film lived in wealth that none of us will likely get to experience. Filming characters making speeches in front of walls completely filled with bright, beautiful flowers is a powerful picture, and it is true of the subjects.

I could gush for paragraph upon paragraph of the visual splendor of the film, but it would bore us both. This movie is a perfect companion piece of Scorsese's most recent, Gangs of New York as a comparison for how Scorsese deals with period pieces. However for every place I felt GoNY fails (generic story development) Age of Innocence proudly succeeds and every place GoNY succeeds Age of Innocence excels. It's very easy to see why Daniel Day-Lewis has been cast by Scorsese in other movies, and likely will continue to work together. His characterizations are amazing. Up until this film I would have considered myself a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis, I have liked nearly everything I have ever seen him in, but his performance in Age of Innocence really blew me away. I will now actively seek out films that Lewis is part of, since he really delivers the goods.

While I realize the premise may sound boring (it's what led me to putting off watching it until I had watched a few other Scorsese films that I recently picked up) and obviously you're not going to pop it in for the hot sex scenes or violence (it's rated PG) the film is truly satisfying. I would urge you to take some time out of your life and take a trip back to the 1870's courtesy of Mr. Scorsese.

9 out of 10 Jackasses
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