The Age of Innocence

Rated: PG
Runtime: 2 Hours and 19 Minutes

Reviewer: Dale
Grade: A

It was a time of manners, whether you wanted to go with them or not. It was a time of hypocrisy and dinner parties and trips to operas that were not to watch the opera so much as to spy on everyone else and see what they were up to, to see what shocking indiscretions were being committed. It was New York City in the 1870's, and it is the setting of "The Age of Innocence".

Director Martin Scorsese has made many films about New York City, but here he takes a fresh approach by showing what it used to be like. He shows us a time when it was not the cesspool of depravity that it is in his other movies (I cite "After Hours" and "Taxi Driver" as prime examples) but this time of forced manners took its own vicious toll on human life, as we see in the film.

"The Age of Innocence" (based on a novel by Edith Wharton) is the story of Newland Archer. Archer is a man from a prominent New York family of some respect and he has taken a fiancee, seemingly dim May Welland (Winona Ryder). He is happy with his match, and, well, he seems to be in love...until he meets May's cousin Ellen Oleska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ellen has committed some indiscretion in marrying a Count from Europe and is now back, separated from her husband, and surrounded by scandal. New York seems to welcome her back at first, but slowly, by ever decreasing social circles, its society is sending her its message. Archer is enchanted by this lady, who seems so oblivious to all that surrounds her and does what she damn well pleases, though not without consequences. One can plainly see that this is exactly what Archer himself longs to do.

Scorsese's direction here is amazing. The sets are rich and opulent, showing us the decadence of this world and the carefully planned beauty of it all. He shows us a neatly choreographed world of butlers, servants, planned entertainments and back-biting and he fills it with so many little touches that it is never less than fascinating. This is Scorsese's most beautiful accomplishment in film and yet, like many of the worlds that Kubrick created, we can tell that there is no heart at the icy core of this world. How he manages to convey this message simply through visuals is a remarkable feat.

Also remarkable are the work of all the actors involved. Daniel Day Lewis is perfect as Archer, showing us a man who says one thing but in whose face you can see barely restrained something entirely different. Here is a man who despises his surroundings so fully, yet cannot leave because of his obligations to family and society. He conveys all this brilliantly, making us intrigued by every gesture and every forced smile. We watch his eyes because that is where the true emotion of the film lies. It is a great performance. Also great is Michelle Pfeiffer, as a woman torn between what she must do and what she wants to do, and compromising somewhere in between: which satisfies neither. And Winona Ryder gives a marvelous performance (something I scarcely thought she was possible of doing) as May. May is a woman who seems dull but is, in reality, manipulating everyone and everything around her without even giving the impression of doing so. She seems innocent even while emotionally eradicating everyone around her, all the while with her dim little smile in place. Winona is awesome here. I also liked the woman who plays Michelle's aunt. She is a great, large old woman who tells it like it is and is, as the narrator describes her, the "Dowager Empress of New York Society". I don't know what this woman's name is, but keep an eye open for her. She is great.

Scorsese has done it again. He has used his immeasurable talents to fascinatingly tell a story that I would otherwise have never cared about. He makes the screen feel alive for these two hours and some odd minutes. He fills the film with passion and eroticism despite the fact that there isn't a hint of flesh on display. The removal of a glove in one scene is more stimulating than ninety percent of the nude scenes I have ever witnessed. That right there should give you an indication of the magnificence of his accomplishment. This is not his best picture, but it is an excellent one and a surprisingly powerful one. It's a cautionary tale that has relevance even in this day and age and I loved it. You probably will as well.