Watched Mar 26, 2012
Mitchell Beaupre’s review:
Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence is a slightly interesting departure for him, trading in his mean streets and firearms for the 19th century and romantic affairs. Co-adapted by Jay Cocks from the novel by Edith Wharton, the director has been known to say that this is his most violent film, an obvious reference to the emotional violence that takes place as opposed to the more direct, physical confrontations in the majority of his films. It's an interesting idea and that violence is played out by a superb cast topped by Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder. Day-Lewis takes on the role of Newland Archer, who is recently engaged to Ryder's May Welland but finds himself having difficulty masking his desires for her cousin, Pfeiffer's Ellen Olenska. It's your standard set up for this kind of period piece and it's not told in any way that makes it stand out, but the acting is enough to keep it relatively engaging throughout.
Day-Lewis has gotten worlds of acclaim and two Oscar statues for his theatrical, outlandish performances but I've honestly always preferred him in his more subtle, intimate displays and here is another example of him showing what a great actor he can be when he holds things in. The emotions are mostly underneath the surface in this film, and Scorsese was smart enough to cast three actors who were superb at portraying them in the perfect tone, expressing those emotions quietly without overdoing it to the audience or to the other characters on screen. They remain true to their characters and to the time period. Michelle Pfeiffer is the most open character, often questioning the ideals of the time period, and she gets to show the most outward emotion, which she does extremely well. She's a woman torn apart by her desires and what she believes is right, expertly portraying that ongoing internal conflict.
Winona Ryder may just be the most impressive of the cast, though, which is something I wasn't expecting to say because at first she felt incredibly miscast in this period setting. Over time she developed her character so well and it's the perfect contrast to Pfeiffer's Olenska. While Olenska is more of an adult an an intellectual equal to Archer, his fiancee Welland is naive and childish. She's not necessarily immature, but she succumbs so quickly to what everyone else wants of her and spends much of her life just trying to not upset others. It's a performance that doesn't allow her to do much on the surface, but what Ryder does underneath is wondrous to behold. There's a scene where Welland informs Archer that Olenska is leaving New York to back to Europe, and in his reaction she finally realizes his feelings for her cousin. Ryder doesn't say a word addressing this realization, but through her eyes and the way her face sinks, through the slight change of tone in her voice, she absolutely breaks your heart.
Scorsese has always been adept at crafting an atmosphere for his films, but I don't think that particular skill of his shines through here at all. It seems like he's lost in this period setting and as a result it all falls a little flat. The acting keeps it together, but there isn't anything memorable in terms of the tone and it essentially just feels like an Ivory clone at the end of it. There are a few stylistic choices that he takes to set it apart, but these end up being the biggest flaws of the film. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus takes an interesting approach by shooting most of the early scenes from the far side of the room they're set in. He rarely uses close-ups, instead framing the whole room in the shot in order to give the audience a richer look at all of the sets and production design. It provides for a deliberately picturesque atmosphere that I found quite impressive. Although it only works because the actors are competent enough to work in this format, performing almost as if they were on stage.
However, they stopped doing this somewhere down the line and things got significantly less interesting as a result. There are still some very beautiful shots used throughout the later stages of the film, but they weren't as unique or interesting as what he had been doing earlier on. I thought the characters trips to the theater were interesting, allowing for a contrast between the large emotions on stage and the restrained ones that our characters portrayed, but they didn't utilize this theme nearly enough. My main problem with the film though, lies in the narration, which is absurdly over-done. The film relies far too much on it, using the voiceover work to spoon feed every drop of background information to the audience. It felt practically as if there was more narrated dialogue than there was delivered by the actual characters on screen.
There was a welcome reprieve every time I got to see a character begin to speak, but this only lasted a few minutes before we went right back into the crutch of presenting nice images while the narration rambled on and on endlessly. This over-reliance also forces the film to present any scenes of characters reading letters by shooting the character who wrote the letter and having them read it directly to the audience, staring straight into the camera, a system that is incredibly awkward and distracting. The Age of Innocence was a nice attempt by Scorsese and it was good of him to try to stretch himself out of the niche he had built, but ultimately I don't think he was very successful.