Perhaps the movie furthest away from Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre is not “Hugo” but is the late 19th Century period romance “The Age of Innocence.”
The 1993 film is an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s famous novel, and yet Scorsese makes it his own by reaching out to a complex, passion filled protagonist struggling for identity in a vicious, rough world. “The Age of Innocence” may lack the violence or blood of some of his masterpieces (this one deserves to be up there with his best), but it’s a biting and bittersweet character drama in which people are trapped within a rigid society of rules and tradition beneath luxurious decorum.
First off, this is a drop dead gorgeous film. “The Age of Innocence” may be 20 years old and the setting may be over 100, but Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s production design haven’t aged a day. Every frame is lusciously picturesque, but the world Scorsese depicts is bleak, flat and two-dimensional. We see Newland Archer’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) wedding photo to May Welland (Winona Ryder) as it is being taken, and at that moment we realize how much this character’s world has been turned upside down. Constantly this dichotomy between the film’s look and its tone makes for a gripping experience.
Newland’s engagement to May is one dictated by society to be a good match, but Newland is in love with a woman who has just returned to New York from Europe, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). She’s an outcast because of her crumbling marriage and her subtle defiance for other social norms. “Why should America be a copy of another country,” she asks as she and Newland bemoan New York’s stringent and too utterly polite traditionalism.
The powerful difference is that none of this is really what it seems. “Everything is labeled,” Newland says, “But everybody is not.” “The Age of Innocence” has a devilishly engaging twist near the end in which we learn how the entire society has politely turned on him and Ellen and composed one marriage necessity that here plays out like a death sentence. This is a movie that calmly obliterates you.
It does so through some of Thelma Schoomaker’s strangest editing in her long career with Scorsese. The film has an elegant, procession like quickness, but also a jumpy, sweeping camera that creates a wholly unsettling mood. Some quick cuts and strikingly peculiar fades to solid red and other colors go against the norm of traditional period drama filmmaking, an ironic twist considering the film’s themes.
But Scorsese also knows how to orchestrate a lovely scene of passion filled romance. He boldly transports us to another world when Newland and Ellen are on screen together, at one point silently isolating the pair of them during an opera with a pinhole camera filter. Scorsese even recreates subtle slow motion effects he tinkered with in “Taxi Driver” by slowing down the frame rate in garish ballroom scenes and during opera performances. Again, the opposing effects of such disconcerting storytelling and sumptuous cinematic beauty is wonderful.
“The Age of Innocence” is not one of Scorsese’s more widely seen films. People see this falling in a lull period for the master during the ’90s, although critics like Roger Ebert have rightfully placed this film amongst his best. But this isn’t even the first time Scorsese had dabbled in romance, as his “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is an excellent genre love story.
I never get the sense that “The Age of Innocence” is not fully a Scorsese picture. In fact, none of his films are without his trademark style, and it takes watching a film like this to see how rich and terrific a director he can be beyond the gangster movie.