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The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese) 1993


    Many detractors of The Age of Innocence, one of Martin Scorsese’s best films, write it off simply as a triumph of set design. There’s no doubt that the film’s décor is exquisite. Every facet of every prop seems to have been fashioned to visual perfection. The ever-present narration tells us about the genesis of the design schemes of many of the rooms that we see. Scorsese’s camera often seems to obsess over the interiors with at least as much intensity as the characters. At times you almost get more interested in the world that the film takes place in (which is New York in the 1870’s) than the plot, but that might be the most brilliant thing about the film. Adapted from Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Age takes place in the cloistered world of high society, and it soon becomes apparent from watching the film that many of society’s refinements have developed as a means of society’s self-defense. When style and etiquette dictates that every fork, every servant, and every piece of furniture needs to know its place, the people that command them damn well better know their place as well. The endless explanations about “how things are done” are less likely customs than words of warning, lest anyone act out of turn and bring disgrace to the traditions that allow the high and mighty to feel superior. The freedoms that the film’s characters’ affluence affords them are blotted by the constrictions set upon them by their peers, and in matters of love, such repression can turn even more ugly.


    The romantic tangling that sits at the center of The Age of Innocence’s plot threatens to upset not just the lives of those involved, but also their entire culture’s justification of itself, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. In order for love to bloom between Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), they must reject everything that they have been told and face becoming utter outcasts. While plenty of other films have placed paramours in similar states, few have done so deft a job at rendering the overwhelming tide of resentment that greets them as this one. What makes the rebuffs so heart-rending in Age is that they rarely are dispensed in way that could be considered out of context. Few attacks rely on impoliteness here. Rarely do two characters verbalize their true feelings to one another, since to do so would be to court impropriety. Many costume dramas feel a bit distant since they don’t make apparent the rules of the games that are being played between its cast members. Scorsese makes no such mistake here, and he uses the first act of his film to make sure we know that we can’t judge these characters by modern standards. Before long, thanks to Scorsese’s directorial prowess, the film completely immerses the viewer, and once we understand the very specific emotional stakes, the film, despite its distant setting, transcends its costume drama trappings and becomes something deeper and more immediate. It’s only because we understand the difference between a polite declination of an invitation and an outright snub that we can later understand the coolly calculated machinations that fuel May Welland (Winona Ryder), Newland’s fiancé. That Scorsese is able to compress so much novelistic detail into his relatively brief film is nothing less than amazing. In this finely modulated context, the obsessive art direction becomes not a defect, but a necessity. We must understand that New York was a place where the smallest flaw was unacceptable, even if it meant snuffing out some very real passion.


* * * * Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman