Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fables of the Reconstruction

Film: The Age of Innocence
Format: DVD from Schmaling Memorial Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

I can’t know what was going on in Martin Scorsese’s mind when it came to directing The Age of Innocence, based on a novel by Edith Wharton. I imagine, though, that his decision was made in part as a way to earn something like greater credibility. He certainly had a good deal of credibility before 1993, but it would be easy to pigeonhole his career as a director who made a very specific type of film. Even in his non-gangster pictures, many of his characters act like gangsters. The Age of Innocence is a complete break with the sort of films Scoresese was known for. I wonder what others thought when he was working on it. Would it come out as a Reconstruction Era Taxi Driver?

It didn’t, of course. The Age of Innocence is, as far as I can tell, faithful to Wharton’s novel. If Scorsese was looking for respect, or wanted to offer proof that his skill as a director wasn’t limited to people trying to kill each other and criminal acts, this was the perfect vehicle him.

It is, ultimately, a very simple story—a basic love triangle. What makes it different is that it does take place during the Reconstruction Era and in proper society, meaning that a lot gets conveyed with a glance and physical affection tends to be replaced by a lot of sighing. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is planning his marriage to May Welland (Winona Ryder), who wants a particularly long engagement. During this time, he meets the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is May’s cousin.

We learn everything that drives the plot in these first few moments. First, May is an important society woman and well-respected, but she’s also dull, unimaginative, and unexciting. Countess Olenska, on the other hand, is vibrant and exotic. She has appeared in New York Society because she has escaped from her husband, a man who has damaged her social standing in Europe. She is seeking a divorce from her husband, much to the family’s chagrin—the scandal would be too much for them to bear (yes, this is the time period we’re dealing with).

Acting on the behalf of his soon-to-be family, Newland convinces Ellen not to go through with the divorce. As he advises her, he falls in love with her, feelings that are definitely reciprocated. Knowing that an affair with a married woman who is already plagued by potential scandal would ruin him, he rushes his marriage with May and does his best to avoid all contact with Ellen for the sake of his social standing. But of course she comes back into his life.

And so, much of the film deals with Newland’s struggle with what he knows he should do based on his social position and his marriage and what he wants to do. Naturally, since we are dealing with the era we are, there’s a great deal of sighing and pining, because that’s the way these things work.

I don’t tend to have issues with period dramas and I don’t have a problem with period romances, except for those that happen during the eras like this one. Everyone is so damn tentative! Give me a film like Dangerous Liaisons every time.

That said, there’s a lot still going for this film. Despite all the pining and whining, there are a few memorable characters. In particular, we have Mrs. Mingott (Miriam Margolyes), a feisty old woman who isn’t shy with her opinion on anything. I enjoyed every moment she was on screen because at least there was someone willing to kick a little verbal ass and not care what anyone thought about it.

And really, it’s got a solid cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is always worth watching. It’s also right in the wheelhouse of the best part of Winona Ryder’s career. I generally am not a fan of Michelle Pfeiffer, but I like her in this. Beyond the central cast here, there are smaller roles from Richard Grant, Jonathan Pryce, and Robert Sean Leonard.

The biggest thing it has going for it, though, is Martin Scorsese. While there were real frustrations for me watching the characters in this film act consistently against their own desires, I can’t but think it’s incredibly gorgeous to watch. There are moments of true cinematic beauty here.

Ultimately, my issues are more with the story than anything else, and in that, my only real problems are that no one acts on anything they feel. Every character seems to allow him- or herself to be trapped in the life they have regardless. I’m sure it’s accurate to the period, but it’s also incredibly frustrating to see. But I’ll suffer through it for the incredible visual feast of the film. And fortunately, it ends perfectly, which is a real bonus.

Why to watch The Age of Innocence: You should watch more Scorsese. Yes, you.
Why not to watch: It might be the most un-Scorsese Scorsese film in existence.


  1. Good review. I agree that this was Scorcese wanting to show people he could do more than make gangster movies.

    I saw this way back when it came to VHS. I honestly don't remember a ton about the plot. I do remember being impressed on how much money must have been spent on the sets, decorating, clothes, etc. Unfortunately, if I'm noticing those things then the movie itself is not usually engaging my interest.

    I don't remember having any issues with the movie, but I also don't remember having anything about it that particularly excited me, either.

    One thing that hurt it is that I watched it because I really liked Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, so The Age of Innocence suffered in comparison to that one.

    Okay, I've now spent close to two hours here commenting on three posts. I really should get a life. :-)

  2. I love me some costume dramas (YES SIR!) but this one... meh. That's all. Meh. There was no heat. There was little passion. I'm all for the sighing and pining, but only when you've sufficiently convinced me of real romantic and/or sexual tension, and I never got that here. I mean, it wasn't bad, it was just... dull. And frankly, it takes a lot for me to call a costume drama "dull."

  3. " only real problems are that no one acts on anything they feel. Every character seems to allow him- or herself to be trapped in the life they have regardless. I’m sure it’s accurate to the period, but it’s also incredibly frustrating to see."

    You're reminding me of Eddie Izzard's fabulous skewering of British period dramas in the Merchant-Ivory style: "People opening doors: 'Oh, I'm...Oh.' 'What?' 'Well— I— Oh.' 'What is it, Sebastian? I'm arranging matches.'"

    It's the same sort of self-repression that John Cleese has made a career of gleefully attacking. Interesting that an American director should buy so fully into that genre. (Or is "buy into" too strong a phrase for what Scorsese did?)

  4. @Chip--my takeaway from this is that it's pretty. There are lovely, lovely shots looking straight down at tables covered in food and surrounded by gorgeously costumed people. I agree that there's not much to remember in the plot. Day-Lewis is good, but I agree that he's not My Left Foot good.

    @Siobhan--Exactly, dammit. I don't buy any of the romances, especially the one I'm supposed to. And more to the point, it's possible to have a truly passionate and unconsummated romance (see Brief Encounter and In the Mood for Love for examples).

    @Kevin--Cleese has a great speech about being emotionally repressed to the point of being dead in A Fish Called Wanda. Kevin Kline has a few choice lines as well--there's one about people walking around with rigor mortis and their hair clenched.

    I know the Izzard routine you're talking about, as well as his Scorsese/Raging Bull version that follows it.