Release: 19th March 2018
Wealthy lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is engaged to sweet socialite May Welland (Winona Ryder) in 1870s New York. On the surface, it is a perfect match. But when May’s beautiful cousin Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is estranged from her brutish husband, arrives in town, Newland begins to question the meaning of passion and love as he desperately pursues a relationship with Ellen, even though she has been made a social outcast by Archer’s peers.
If someone asked you to name five Martin Scorsese movies, and you were to answer instinctively rather than to proffer some pretentious calculated list that includes The King of Comedy, The Color of Money or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; then you’d likely name five films that were either extremely violent (Raging Bull), extremely hedonistic (The Wolf of Wall Street) or extremely gangster-centric (everything else). The overarching opinion is that Scorsese does highbrow cinema about blue-collar people. These people are normally fiends, outlaws or rogues. In other words, it would be fair to say that The Age of Innocence does not feature high on the Scorsese checklist. But once you strip away the façade of gilded age New York, with the Age of Innocence what remains is a story about tribalism, tradition, obsession, control and trust. It seems that the worlds of Newland Archer and Travis Bickle are not so far apart after all.
The Age of Innocence was a part of Scorsese’s own gilded period, we he operated on a one for me, one for you style ratio of yo-yoing from blood soaked crime drama to far reaching epic. It was in this time he would visit the majesty of Tibetan monks with a film such as Kundun, then 180 in to the chaos and Nicholas Cageyness of something such as Bringing Out The Dead. Or in the case of Age of Innocence; come hot off the back of a heady remake of Cape Fear. His next film would be Casino.
What makes this a special period in his career is that he would be constantly experimenting, exercising his right as an A-list filmmaker to not only tell stories in an eclectic and engaging rhythm, but also to learn lessons on one film and then perfect techniques on the next. With its rapid edits, bright colour fades and 4th wall breaking narrative techniques; this is why The Age of Innocence does not feel like any costume drama you will have seen. Yet, somehow, Scorsese manages to make this feel like a film wholly prescriptive to the subject material. He is not infusing montages of ball gowns and top hats with Sammy Davis Junior tracks; but rather imbuing the aesthetic and tones of these moments of opulence and glamour with a ‘Scorsese’ sense of timing. The result is that the film looks like a Tissot painting, but feels like Goodfellas. It is an odd sensation at first, and takes a little time to adjust, but once Scorsese settles and you as a viewer can submit to the ride, the experience is a rather rewarding one.
Art is key to the film, as is culture. So it is little wonder, that Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus go to great lengths to make the film look like a moving canvas. Newland, who so vehemently odes to the craft of painting, finds himself regularly situated in worlds that could so easily have come from the artists who works populate the walls of the film. Freeze frame at the Louvre scene, or while Countess Olenska sits smiling in a Boston park, and you could quite easily frame it and hang the film on a wall. There are themes of contradiction and veiled modes of expression that run throughout the story, and Scorsese uses every tool in his toolkit to build a world clothed in material distraction to emphasise this. Dinners go on for an eternity, conversations go around in circles and lead nowhere, and time passes seemingly without any sense of purpose. Newland’s world is a prison of sumptuousness that he seems unable to escape. Yet such great detail is shown, we cannot help but feel both the character and the director’s respect for the processes behind it all.
The Age of Innocence is anchored by three wonderful performances, but it is Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer who get the lion’s share of the great scenes. Day-Lewis is, as always, an absolute pleasure to watch. His secret here is that Newland is played with boyish naivety, like a fly that seems ignorant to the fact that he is already entangled in the spider’s web. The film’s closing minutes give his work a chance to really make itself evident, as we are left weeping and wondering what the parting gesture truly means. Pfeiffer, meanwhile, is a beguiling presence as Countess Olenska. It is easy to relate to Newland’s fascination with such an enigmatic individual. Olenska is neither sexual nor timid. She walks a line between the two, while never fully committing to either, contributing to a performance that is equally as tragic and magnanimous as her co-star’s.
Scorsese’s film opens with Saul Bass’s title sequence of flowers blossoming with lace creating a ghostly mask over them. It is a sensual and dramatic sequence that really lays ground for what is to follow. This is a film that builds, teasing out nuances of deep and meaningful humanity from the farcical rigidity of upper class society. We would eventually see this sort of high quality material in (an unrelated) long form storytelling when a little show called The Crown would appear some 23 years later. But there is no denying that Scorsese really knows how to tell a great story. A human story in any guise, filled with emotion that can grow beyond the confines of the Sicilian mafia. Yet, as we know, the next time he’d be yelling “action”, it’d be for Joe Pesci sticking a pen in someone’s neck.
Film Grade: A-
It is always a pleasure to watch Martin Scorsese talk about his craft, even if the interviewer looks like he may have just committed or be about to commit murder; so bonus points for the lengthy Interview featured here.
Jay Cocks also gives some nice insights, as do the other foreign language interviews. The Making Of, meanwhile is just an old video release. It is such a shame not to hear from Day-Lewis, Pfeifer or Ryder in a modern day roundtable, or even to get a group commentary. So I guess this is what we have to make do with.
Special Features Grade: C
Often a forgotten gem in Scorsese’s beautiful crown of achievements. Well worth the Criterion treatment as it looks great here. Just a shame the special features took a bit of a hit.