Flix Picks: The Age of Innocence

Flix Picks is a new semi-regular feature that explores the depths of my Netflix queue and allows me the chance to catch up with some older films that I’ve not yet seen.

When thinking of Martin Scorsese films, most people conjure up images of gangsters, crime, and physical brutality. While the director might be most well-known for those stories, he’s covered far more ground than that material, trying his hand at anything from existential comedy in After Hours to biopics like The Aviator, and soon even sci-fi with Hugo Cabret. With that idea in mind I decided to catch up with one of Scorsese’s lesser talked about films, The Age of Innocence, to see what he could bring to a period piece. These types of films usually aren’t my favorite stories to watch, but, based on the talent involved, I thought this one was worth a look. For some reason, I was curious how a “drama of manners” would play out.

The film examines the upper echelons of Victorian New York society where a rigid etiquette rules the day. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer, a wealthy lawyer who, as the film begins, is about to announce his engagement to May (Winona Ryder), a socialite from a prominent family. But trouble quickly starts when May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), arrives from Europe to flee from her abusive husband. She stirs up the high society crowd with her scandalous marriage and rumors fly fast on whether she’ll seek a divorce. Archer immediately becomes taken with Ellen and so he brings it upon himself to help her settle into New York life, eventually spending as much time with her as possible. Although Archer loves Ellen, he’s torn because of his devotion to May. From there the story becomes a question of whether Archer will obey the strict social mores of the time and settle with May, or follow his passion and begin a life with Ellen.

While at first glance The Age of Innocence may appear drastically different than other Scorsese pictures, it’s important to note that it still covers some of his basic, recurring themes. For example, guilt features prominently in many Scorsese films and here it weighs heavily on Newland Archer as he contemplates leaving May. In fact, Scorsese has cited this film as his “most brutal” because of the emotional intensity involved. Obsession also comes into play as Newland invents any excuse he can to see Ellen alone. His primary thoughts turn to what life would be like with her instead of May. At the same time, he’s constantly paranoid about anyone suspecting an affair. I may be the only one, but Newland’s paranoia eventually reminded me of Ray Liotta towards the end of Goodfellas when he suspects lawmen are following him around town. Okay, so that particular comparison may be a stretch, but there’s still no denying the Scorsese touch on this film.

On a purely technical level, and in typical Scorsese fashion, the film functions as an awesome feast for the eyes. The cinematography by Michael Ballhaus is full of rich, vivid colors, showing off the all the glamorous decors of the wealthy. The camera seems to be in constant movement, circling and observing these character’s lives. The free-flowing camera serves as a nice contrast to the repressed society the film studies. The set design is among the most detailed I’ve seen in a long while. From the decadent paintings and furniture that adorn character’s stately homes, to the quiet comfort of a cottage fireplace, the locations felt impressively authentic and they say as much (or more) about the characters as they themselves might. Last, but not least, it wouldn’t be a period film without great costumes. The goods are definitely delivered here as evidenced by the film’s Oscar win for Best Costume Design.

I thought the whole cast performed admirably. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers another great performance as Archer, expressing the private turmoil of a man who must choose between two women. If after watching films like There Will Be Blood or Gangs of New York, you thought Day-Lewis only specializes in showy performances, then you should definitely view his work here. He walks a delicate balance between his character’s inner longings and the outward restraint he must show publicly. As for the leading ladies, I thought Michelle Pfeiffer worked well as Ellen. Her part walks a similar line as Day-Lewis’ since Ellen must also wrestle with the moral and social consequences of an affair. With Pfeiffer and Day-Lewis in the mix, you might think that the weak link in the cast would come from Winona Ryder, but I was pleasantly surprised with her performance as May. This might come across as an insult (although it’s not intended to be), but I thought she fit the part of a naïve, somewhat bland girl rather well. What actually makes her performance work, though, are the moments when we realize there’s more to May than her surface qualities. As a result, Ryder’s work may appear deceptively simple, but within her slightness lays her strength.

While I was thoroughly impressed with the technical side of the film as well as the performances, something brought it down for me. Based on my first viewing, the main problem I have with the film stems from the story itself. The main conflict that Archer faces didn’t come across as compelling as it could have been. Much of the lack of drama pertains to the setting and how characters within this upper class act in social situations. Within this world, a potential affair would equal an outright scandal with serious consequences, but I never felt much at stake. Sure, the emotions of the leads are in jeopardy, but when you’re dealing with characters who constantly repress their feelings, it can be a challenge to fully connect with them. Now, I realize that we’re dealing with a world of subtlety where even a slight glance could speak volumes about a character. But all the minute details didn’t add up to much drama, unfortunately. There’s also something distancing about the film, again because of the nature of the social class and time period involved. Perhaps that’s the intended effect, but for me it lead to a lack of interest by the end. That might sound harsh, but know that I still enjoy the film overall. It’s subtle and I have a feeling that multiple viewings may be required to fully appreciate it.

So, for those seeking a another blood-soaked crime film from Scorsese, The Age of Innocence might not be your cup of tea, but those willing to venture into unfamiliar territory, there’s much to enjoy. If nothing else, audiences could watch this for the visuals alone. Every frame offers some stunning imagery. As for my current misgivings toward the film, I plan on revisiting it at some point and see if my feelings change. I think The Age of Innocence could easily become a film that grows on me over time, but, for now, I’ll just have to admire it from a distance.

This film is currently in Netflix’s Watch Instantly category, so all of you who have the service should take advantage and give the film a chance. Let us know your thoughts on it.

SCORE: 3 stars