UK Release Date: 19th March 2018
Runtime: 138 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Miriam Margolyes, Richard E Grant, Stuart Wilson
Synopsis: A man obsessed with society and status finds his world view shattered when he falls for a married woman, despite already being engaged to someone else.
Costume dramas can go one of two ways. They are often dull, overly polite trudges through rather boring worlds populated by boring people. However, with the right screenwriter and the right director, they can be elegant, incendiary works of emotional intensity. The films from most recent memory that come to mind are Amma Asante‘s powerful Belle and the whip-smart Love & Friendship. It’s in that mould that we can place The Age of Innocence, which is out on a new Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection and sits as one of Martin Scorsese‘s rather more uncharacteristic movies.
A far cry from the brutal streets of the modern New York City that Scorsese became known for depicting, this is every inch a period drama. It follows Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), who meets controversial countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) shortly after his engagement to her cousin May (Winona Ryder). Despite the rumblings of gossip surrounding Ellen at society functions, Newland finds himself falling for her and must balance his respect for the niceties and politics of his world with his desire.
There’s a rhythm and cadence to The Age of Innocence that is somewhat uncommon to this brand of movies, but is vintage Scorsese, helping the social commentary to come to the fore through sharp dialogue. Newland Archer is a character buried and crushed under the weight of high society’s tangled web – described as “balanced so precariously its harmony could be shattered by a whisper”. The entire film is a critique of this uppity, unimaginative world, with Winona Ryder’s peppy May representing conformism, while the free-thinking countess is the greener grass on the other side – a manifestation of Newland’s escapist ideal.
The complexity and uncertainty of Newland is portrayed perfectly by Daniel Day-Lewis, in one of his typically inscrutable, mercurial performances. His acceptance of May is entirely believable, but he visibly comes alive under the spell of Pfeiffer’s Ellen, culminating in a bracingly intimate scene in which he removes her glove in the back of a carriage. Pfeiffer is equally convincing as a woman who is seductive, but capable of carrying out that seduction within the self-imposed rules of the world in which they live.
It’s Winona Ryder who is the real star of The Age of Innocence and she richly deserved the Oscar nomination she received that year. May initially seems to be something of a blank slate, naive to the world outside of ballgowns and pageantry, but Ryder conveys a potentially manipulative steel beneath the surface. This is a character who can sense her ideal existence slipping through her fingers and is willing to do anything to ensure that she gets what she wants. It’s a delightfully ambiguous performance, delivered with real intelligence by Ryder.
Scorsese’s direction keeps the rhythm going every bit as much as the sharp dialogue and the intelligent narration that gives the entire thing the feel of a story the audience is being led through. In one early scene, Scorsese borrows his iconic long take from Goodfellas to showcase Newland’s arrival at a party and he brings a visual invention to a story that could easily have been about people talking in rooms. The pacing is a little askew and the entire thing is perhaps slightly overlong, but there’s a depth to it all that makes it easy to be sucked into the niceties of this society and the darkness lurking behind closed doors.
Some intriguing new interviews with the likes of Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks, plus an old documentary about the making of the movie.
Pop or Poop?
This is far from just a movie for Martin Scorsese completists. The Age of Innocence is a period drama with a malevolent smirk at the corner of its mouth, helped by terrific performances from the central trio of Day-Lewis, Pfeiffer and Ryder.
The dialogue crackles and sparkles, with the occasional directorial flourish from Scorsese doing more than enough to keep the pace up for the lion’s share of the admittedly slightly bloated running time.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
The Age of Innocence is available on Blu-ray in the UK now, as part of the Criterion Collection.