Directed by Martin Scorsese (1993) Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder
To begin with, I complete understand the love that Daniel Day-Lewis gets now. In The Age of Innocence, he plays Newland Archer who is engaged to May Welland (Ryder) when he meets her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer). Because Olenska left her abusive husband, she is an outcast in New York society, but her out-of-step actions intrigue Archer to the point of infatuation. Ryder seems tailor-made for wearing the costumes in these films, but I remain ambivalent about Pfeiffer’s casting. She dons a reedy voice for her role as Olenska, but sticks out more from her cast mates by looking, well, too nineties.
Everything about this movie is pretty: pretty costumes, gorgeous set-design, cinematography that uses classic techniques, and best of all, food porn. Every time there’s a party scene, the camera takes sweet time looking over the food that’s being served, including a long sweep over a table laden with desserts. More importantly, New York City in the 1870s is beautifully reconstructed, especially for set design and costumes. It gets high marks in all areas that count the most for costume-flicks. The cinematography, while it lends great lighting to the food, also works its hands in the most important scenes, such as when Archer watches a boat pass a lighthouse or when he believes that everyone in Society knows about his affair, while a red light flashes on him, then off again. Actually, all of the colors in the movies turn out fantastic, as if Technicolor has been brought in to make the roses a little more yellow and Olenska’s gown a little more scarlet.
I haven’t read the novel by Edith Warton, but with the addition of voice-over, I got the impression that what was being constructed was the novel for the screen, rather than a mere adaptation. The film feels like an epic on that scale alone, while it becomes punctuated by parties, dinners, and nights at the opera. The plot develops primarily through letters, which get spoken accounts by the writers, and conversations, which often happen off-screen, since not all of the conversations of-interest happen while Archer’s in the room. It’s all social intrigue and he-said, she-saw and filial influence running amuck with these rich people, who come to define what the upper class is in Manhattan.
When it came to the denouement, it seemed pretty set in stone. That’s how these Forbidden Love stories tend to go, although in this case, society had directly prevented Archer and Olenska from running off together, all through the influence of honor and family ties. I can’t fault May from keeping Archer in New York– she was securing her happiness as much as he would have by traveling– but the epilogue scene in Paris, as an older Archer walks around the city with his adult son (played by Robert Sean Leonard, who just seems made for this sort of role in the early 90s) gave a necessary conclusion to this drama.