Friday 15 April 2022

Movie Review: The Age Of Innocence (1993)

A romantic costume drama, The Age Of Innocence wallows within a tepid love triangle.

The setting is New York City in the 1870s, and the social circles inhabited by elite families. With every gesture observed, scrutinized, and judged according to behaviour codes, respected lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) announces his engagement to May Welland (Winona Ryder), a union that will bring together two influential families.

But May's jovial cousin Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) is back in town, and immediately catches Newland's eye. Ellen carries the whiff of scandal, because her marriage to a European aristocrat fell apart and she was rumoured to have had an affair. With the rest of New York's society shunning her, Newland becomes her one defender and confidant, and a passionate love develops between them.

While undoubtedly gorgeous to look at with lavish period sets, immaculate costumes and make-up, grand opera houses, and high-society balls, The Age Of Innocence cannot overcome a lifeless script and pure lethargy. Director Martin Scorsese is out of his element, and falls victim to a standard story of misplaced affections as Newland becomes yet another man jeopardizing his standing in pursuit of the alluring but flawed independent woman.

Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks adapt the Edith Wharton book and infuse the script with critiques about social norms and expectations, with nods to women like Ellen yearning for more autonomy but encountering a wall of judgment. Newland is more enlightened and eager to argue for a society that does not solely punish a woman for her husband's awful behaviour. Throughout are unsubtle references by both Ellen and May about seeking safety, here used as code for economic security and social status.

But the film flounders on glacial pacing, repressed dialogue suppressing displays of initiative. Multiple scenes invest in various characters discussing the planned length of Newland's engagement to May, and whether this should be shortened. Another topic of obsessive discussion is whether Ellen should or should not relocate back to Europe. Meanwhile Newland and Ellen engage in repetitive scenes circling the same conversations and arguments about their impossible love. 

Other weaknesses include forgettably bland secondary characters, and excessive narration (by Joanne Woodward) that more resembles a book reading. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder are suitably coiffed but sink into the prevailing staidness, their predictable emotions disappearing into the candle-lit sets. The Age Of Innocence is a tranquil descent into the age of drowsiness.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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