Age of Innocence, The (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's New York City in the 1870s, a society ruled by expectations and propriety, where a hint of immorality can bring scandal and ruin. This is an America every bit as Victorian as her contemporary England. Into this world arrives Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), a woman who has spent much of her life in Europe and is now escaping from a disastrous marriage. Her initial adult meeting with Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is sedate - he is engaged to her cousin May (Winona Ryder) - but there is a subtle fire smouldering from the first glance. From that point on, Archer's dilemma becomes painfully clear - proceed with what society deems proper and marry the rather vapid May, or allow his heart and passions to carry him far from the realm of what is conventionally acceptable.

Martin Scorsese has made a reputation from making movies that show a profound perceptiveness of human nature through their images of toughness and violence. On the surface, one would be hard-pressed to find a story more unlike Raging Bull or Goodfellas than The Age of Innocence, which seems better suited to a Merchant-Ivory production. However, Scorsese has placed his indelible stamp on this picture, not only through the camerawork, but in the potent tension that builds between the main characters. For while blood has often been Scorsese's method, the characters, and what exists between and within them, have always been his ends.

The Age of Innocence is a sumptuous motion picture, a feast for the senses. The colors are vivid, from the red and yellow of roses to the flashes of crimson and white that transition scenes. The powerful score moves along with the story, in perfect counterpoint to the visuals - never intrusive, but always effective. The scenes of artfully-prepared meals are enough to make mouths water, and it's almost possible to smell the pungent aroma of cigars. In these elements of the film, Scorsese was ably assisted by contributions from composer Elmer Bernstein and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus.

The set design and costumes are flawless, and the audience is legitimately transported to the nineteenth-century (through the help of Troy, NY, where the principal filming was done, and the Philadelphia Academy of Music, which doubled as a New York opera house). This is not some mere token attempt to conjure up images of times past; Scorsese has put so much effort into the illusion that those who didn't know better would be willing to swear that he had discovered a time capsule.

Adapting from the 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edith Wharton (who also wrote Ethan Frome, a similar story of love and loss, which reached American screens earlier this year), Scorsese and Jay Cocks have successfully incorporated the conflict of emotion against societal pressures which lies at the heart of The Age of Innocence. Those watching the movie will understand that it is no easy task to resurrect a code of behavior long dead and buried.

Daniel Day-Lewis never fails to impress, even when he appears in a poor film. For the most part, however, he has chosen good roles, and his presence in a movie often lifts the production to another level. Would The Last of the Mohicans have been as stunning without him? Would My Left Foot have been as poignant? Here, Day-Lewis immerses himself in the character of Newland Archer, and it's no great stretch for the audience to accept him.

I have never subscribed to the widely-held belief that Michelle Pfeiffer is a ravishing beauty. In fact, in The Age of Innocence, she looks rather plain (an impression that, in my opinion, heightened the impact of the story). Ellen is exotic, certainly, but beautiful? Nevertheless, there is no denying the stirring, heartfelt passion of Pfeiffer's performance. Outstripping anything she has done in the past, the role of Ellen can be considered a pinnacle.

Winona Ryder isn't as impressive as Day-Lewis or Pfeiffer, but her talents are put to better use here than in Bram Stoker's Dracula. There's no wringing of hands, no tears, and -- most thankfully of all -- no instances of going over-the-top. Ryder's May is quiet, demure, and easily relegated to the background -- just as she should be.

There are few films this year that I recommend as heartily as The Age of Innocence, which has the rare distinction of being more of a cinematic experience than a simple movie. Something that transcends the medium like this shouldn't be set aside for viewing on the small screen. For those who expect more from their films that a lot of bangs and flashes, The Age of Innocence is not to be missed.

Age of Innocence, The (United States, 1993)

Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1993
Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Release Date: 1993-09-17
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: