I've now watched Martin Scorsese's 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence twice, and I watched it far enough apart that I managed to have the exact same reaction to the exact same elements both times. I know that I almost definitely need to read Wharton's novel to fully appreciate this story, and hopefully the next time I watch it (because I'm sure there will be a next time), I'll have done so and have more to say. The story follows Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a young lawyer in 1870s New York engaged to marry the sweet, pretty May Welland (Winona Ryder). Newland chafes under the restrictive nature of New York society, which operates by a strict moral code with heavy dollops of hypocrisy clearly lifted from Victorian England. However, he seems content to only question convention privately, until the arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) amid all sorts of scandal ignites his dormant passion. Innocence was a huge departure for Scorsese, known for his violent crime-themed films, so of course a seemingly stuffy costume drama didn't appeal to his regular audience. As for whether Age of Innocence actually is a stuffy costume drama, or in fact an underappreciated work of subtle beauty is what I'm still trying to figure out.
Both times I watched the film I was (unsurprisingly) impressed with Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as a man torn between passion and morality. (I was going to put the BIG version of the above photo as the main pic for this entry but I figured that might be a bit gratuitous and non-representative...) While Pfeiffer maintains an almost off-putting veneer of restraint for Ellen until the last possible second, Day-Lewis won my sympathies because we see his character's flaws and struggles so openly. Although I liked their scenes together, I thought most of the heat and tension was generated by Day-Lewis, while I felt a degree of coldness from Pfeiffer. But maybe Ellen is supposed to be a little bit ice queen, I'm not sure because I haven't read the novel and certainly Scorsese's direction favoured Day-Lewis since we see so much of him (not complaining!). Again, Scorsese is probably echoing the characterization in the novel, so I can't help but feel like I can't judge properly. Still, Pfeiffer wasn't completely closed off, and I warmed to her as the film went on and the wider picture of Ellen's plight as a woman scorned is revealed.
While the torrid, snatched affair between Newland and Ellen is the tragic romantic heart of the film, I also loved Scorsese's portrayal of the claustrophobic society that entraps the two lovers. The Oscar-winning costume design is of course fantastic, but the entire set design and use of colour is amazing. Much of the film takes places indoors, in the drawing rooms of the best New York houses where all the important people gather. These rooms are densely decorated with every kind of luxury imaginable. However, there's a distinct lack of elegance in these rooms, and instead they evoke a gaudiness that smothers the viewer with oversaturated opulence. The moment when Newland realizes just how stiflingly ruthless his society is, Scorsese swings the camera around the party of hypocritical moralizers in the overstuffed room - brilliantly revealing the full extent of the suffocating circumstances Newland finds himself in. The power of society to so swiftly crush people's hopes is a truly scary thing to behold, and I think Scorsese portrays this world masterfully through his decadent sets and deft camerawork.
I was a little shocked to find out that Winona Ryder was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of May. I personally found her to be flighty and irritating, and I often wondered what she was doing on the same screen as Daniel Day-Lewis. For most of the film, both times I saw it, I was annoyed by Ryder's ditzy, flimsy manner and wished someone more appealing had been cast in that role, or that she had played May a little more sympathetically throughout. Unbalanced love triangles are too easy (see A Place in the Sun). It's amazing how a viewer's moral compass gets skewed based on an unattractive jilted lover character, and in the case of Ryder, I dislike her so much for most the film that I just want Newland to ditch her stupid, boring ass and run off with Ellen. But in the last third of the film certain things are revealed about May's character that make me re-evaluate both May's character and Ryder's performance, and a slight feeling of guilt creeps in. So, in fact, both times I was lured into hating May's character and (Ryder's performance) until the last second, when I started to think that maybe it was all intentional and in fact this wasn't a terrible performance after all, but actually quite brilliant? I'm starting to lean towards the latter, but I know that I'll never enjoy watching Ryder in this film, no matter how "true" to the character she is. I suppose I can acknowledge a good performance, but for me personally, Ryder is one of the big things holding me back from loving this film.
The other big beef I have with Innocence is the narration. Although it's beautifully written (is it maybe straight from the novel?) and read, there's just so much of it that I find it distracting. The narration gives us tons of helpful hints about what's going on behind the surface in this hypocrisy-filled society, just in case we couldn't tell. I don't want a tour guide to navigate this world, I want to sense and see these things on my own. Maybe I'm just not used to being hammered with such detailed narration, but I thought it destroyed some of the much-ballyhooed subtlety of the film. Even worse, I think the heavy-handed narration, combined with the uneven pace of the film gave it an air of marked fustiness - and this is coming from a great lover of period pieces. I have no problem with a slow-paced film if there's enough depth to support it, but isn't the key word subtlety? If I'm going to sit through something slow and calculated, I want the full richness of what I'm seeing to be slowly revealed to me. When it's being spelled out so explicitly through narration, the slow pace ceases to be subtle and starts to get stuffy and boring.
Still, those two major flaws in my eyes don't completely sink the film for me because of the perfect ending that gets me every time. It's ambiguous and poignant and almost makes me forget everything I dislike about the film and begs for another viewing...which is how I ended up here in the first place. There's so much good in The Age of Innocence that it's no wonder that I keep wanting to revisit it and claim it as one of my very favourites. But I think I'll have to cop out and reserve final judgment until I read Wharton's novel.