Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese
Based on: The novel by Edith Wharton
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Miriam Margoyles, Richard E. Grant, Geraldine Chaplin, Michael Gough, Mary Beth Hurt, Robert Sean Leonard
Running Time: 138 min
BBFC Certificate: U
Wealthy New York aristocrat Newland Archer (Day-Lewis) announces his engagement to the well-respected May Welland (Ryder), and their blissful life together seems entirely mapped out for them. However, the arrival of May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer), has the potential to derail the course due to the scandalous activities of her philandering husband, and her growing mutual attraction to Newland.
I’ll begin by stating that I’m not a huge fan of period dramas, and I agreed to review this more to cross off an unseen Scorsese than an actual interest in the contents of the film. As his films go, this is amongst the Scorsese pictures that I’ve heard discussed the least before I watched it, and indeed it rarely feels like the rest of his filmography, mainly due to the lack of swearing, brutality and frivolous gun-play. Yet there remains more than traces of Scorsese’s stylish flair, be it a long take through several rooms more than a little reminiscent of Goodfellas‘ Copocabana tour, or in an initially well-lit scene a spotlight illuminates just two people having a whispered conversation, with all other sounds fading to silence.
This is the kind of film that has a great deal going for it. The costume design is incredible – as is to generally be expected with period dramas – and deservedly picked up an academy award, although it does occasionally fall in line with the cliche of a woman’s dress colour emphasising her character, with Pfeiffer dressed in seductive, alluring scarlet compared to Ryder’s demure, virginal white. The production design, music, hair, make-up, everything has been groomed to perfection and a tremendous amount of effort in all areas is evident on screen, but alas the overall film suffers from a lacklustre script.
My opening synopsis, establishing a love triangle between the man and two women, is essentially the entirety of the plot, yet still it approaches almost two and a half hours in length. It’s interminable, if for no other reason than the whole plot is so thoroughly inevitable, with every mild plot development easily predicted far in advance because that’s just the sort of thing that happens in these kinds of films. This suffers from the same issues that plague most period dramas, which is that more often than not it feels like misery porn, watching members of the aristocracy grapple with their own repression in immaculate gowns at ornate dinners or being incredibly rude and talking through opera performances.
It’s adapted from Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, yet often feels like barely an adaptation at all, suffering as it does from an extreme excess of dialogue. The narration reminds one of trying to read Jane Austen, books which in my opinion contain far more words than the sentences know what to do with. There is some poetry to the proceedings – one character, instead of being called “fat” is referred to as suffering from “the burden of her flesh” – but I can’t help feeling this would work a great deal better on paper than it did on screen.
Also in today’s climate it’s at times uncomfortable watching these most privileged of folks being overly obsessed with the most trite and insignificant concerns (actual dialogue: “I wonder if she wears a round hat or a bonnet in the afternoon?”). To be fair that’s part of the message being conveyed, that when people do not have genuine hardships to overcome they instead preoccupy themselves with trifling trivialities, but it remains frustrating to watch.
I’m fully aware that this is a personal bias, so I’ll close things on a more positive note which is to say that the acting is almost entirely great. Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer provide nuanced, captivating performances, though the lead trio is let down by a bizarrely Oscar-nominated Ryder, who on occasion delivered dialogue in a manner unconcerned with any punctuation the script may have originally contained. Elsewhere the likes of Miriam Margoyles, Richard E. Grant and Geraldine Chaplin fill out the supporting roles excellently, and the cinematography is gorgeous throughout, particularly the shot of Michelle Pfeiffer standing on a pier at sunset.
The Age of Innocence is available on Blu-Ray from Criterion. The Blu-Ray contains additional supplements including a conversation between director Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones about Scorsese’s approach to the adaptation, interviews with co-screenwriter Jay Cocks, production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Gabriella Pescucci, the trailer and a making-of documentary entitled Innocence and Experience, originally screened on HBO in 1993.