Christopher Machell Criterion

Criterion Review: The Age of Innocence

★★★★☆

In 1870s New York, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) prepares to marry the sweet-natured Mary Welland (Winona Ryder). But while their wealthy families look forward to consolidating wealth and influence through the match, Archer’s eye is drawn by the disgraced European aristocrat Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Arguably the greatest living American director, Martin Scorsese’s historical films have nevertheless struggled for the recognition awarded his more recognisable crime pictures. 2016’s Silence didn’t land with audiences in the way that the more kinetic The Wolf of Wall of Street or The Departed did, and his underrated Gangs of New York is generally viewed as a messy outlier. Similarly, on its 1993 release the stately, resolutely old-fashioned The Age of Innocence blindsided critics and audiences expecting another Goodfellas, sadly becoming something of a forgotten curio in the director’s body of work.

Admittedly not up there with the director’s best, there remains much to recommend Age of Innocence as a cinematic rendition of Edith Wharton’s source novel. Sumptuous is the key word here, with the film’s gorgeous visuals its strongest suit. Much of this success can be attributed longtime Scorsese-collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker’s hypnotic editing, combined with Michael Ballhaus’ richly textured cinematography, which jointly conjure an elegant, heavy aesthetic. The world of The Age of Innocence is at once opulent and regimented, where the richness of the dinner table is tempered with the minutiae of high-society manners, where life’s splendour is represented by expensive Boston-school paintings adorning the walls of drawing rooms, while candles illuminate fecund, meticulously arranged bouquets of flowers.

Scorsese pays homage to classic costume dramas and the emotional intensity of silent cinema with self-conscious key lighting and the frequent use of iris shots to draw the audience’s eye, he signals The Age of Innocence as a richly rewarding exercise in cinema. The director’s painterly compositions combine with his signature tracking shots and a surfeit of textural montage to create an almost-swooning visual effect, as if the characters’ repressed torrents of passion have passed into the fabric of the film itself.

As a cinematic exercise, The Age of Innocence is technical mastery of the highest order, yet as emotional catharsis it never quite delivers. The stately pace makes its two and a half hour running time feel more like three, and though we are given the impression of complex emotions bubbling under the surface, the film’s key players often feel more like ciphers than real people. Day-Lewis, too, is eminently watchable yet lacks the scenery-chewing bravura of There Will Be Blood or indeed Gangs of New York’s Bill the Butcher.

Scorsese had his cast replicate authentic late-nineteenth century East-Coast accents. The result inevitably sounds unusual to modern ears, but one can’t help but feel something has been mangled in Ryder’s waifish line readings, and the origins of Pfeiffer’s cod-European speech is anyone’s guess. An unsure narrative hampers Age of Innocence’s ability to stand with the director’s more assured work, yet Scorsese’s period drama is a deeply cinematic experience, at once beautiful, oppressive and rich.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell