Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder
Rated PG for Thematic Elements and Brief Mild Language
Martin Scorcese does Merchant/Ivory.
If that sounds strange, well, it is. Scorcese is known for brutally violent and/or decadent movies like "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas," "Gangs of New York" and "The Departed." Him making a Victorian era costume drama seems like a very odd choice. Then again, he did make the raunchy and outrageous "The Wolf of Wall Street," so maybe it's not as big of a stretch as one might assume.
Many of Scorcese's films deal with guilt of some kind, and boy is "The Age of Innocence" ripe with it. When your life is hermetically sealed off from the rest of society and everyone too wealthy to concern themselves with anything other than what everyone else is doing, you have to watch your step. And if your in that situation in Victorian era New York City, falling in love with a wanton woman is essentially committing social suicide.
That's the situation that Newland Archer (Day-Lewis) finds himself in. A wealthy lawyer, he's a part of the cream of the crop in New York City shortly after the Civil War. Everyone knows everyone in that part of society, and reputations are everything. Fortunately, he's helplessly in love with his cousin, the polite and innocent May Welland (Ryder), whom he wants to marry as soon as possible. However tradition dictates that they be engaged for a year or two. In the meantime, Countess Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer) moves back home after her husband cheats on her. This causes quite the scandal, and as Newland makes moves to bring her back to respectability, he finds himself falling in love for her.
This is one of those movies where tradition and propriety take place over everything else. As such, the mantra "say what you mean" does not apply. Demanding that the audience read behind the dialogue and action is a risky proposition, but when done well it can pay off in droves. Sadly, the screenplay by Scorcese and Jay Cocks is uneven. It usually works, but the first half is rocky. Scorcese has trouble delineating who is who and how they relate to each other, and in a story where the complex social structure lies at the heart of the film, that's a big problem.
As is always the case in a Scorcese movie, the acting is exceptional. Daniel Day-Lewis, whose career would see a resurgence nearly a decade later when he acted for Scorcese in "Gangs of New York," is in fine form here. Famous for his intense preparation and volcanic performances, Day-Lewis plays a relatively low-key individual. That's not to say that his performance is bad, which it certainly isn't. Merely that he's playing a mild-mannered individual. But the actor causes Newland's inner turmoil to bubble to the surface in a way that's palpable. Even if I didn't understand everything that was going on, I felt his conflict. Michelle Pfeiffer is every bit his equal (despite her accent having a minor hiccup every now and then). She loves Newland, but knows that if anyone found out, they would both be ruined, and she loves him enough to not take that chance. And while Winona Ryder's character seems one-note in concept, the actress gives her hidden depths, making her sympathetic, tragic or vicious, depending on the circumstances.
Romance has never been a particular trademark of Scorcese's, and that hasn't changed here. The chemistry between Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer takes too long to build. It does happen towards the end, but the lack of heat between the actors shortchanges the early portions. However, the connection between Day-Lewis and Ryder is almost instantaneous, and that's mainly due to Ryder's spirited innocence.
This is not one of Scorcese's greatest films, and will have little interest outside of it's target audience. But in the end I think it's worth seeing for those who wish to seek it out. If nothing else, the score by Elmer Bernstein is wonderful.