“They all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world. The real thing was never said or done or even thought…”
“The Age of Innocence” originated as a novel written in 1920 by American author Edith Wharton, who later received the Pulitzer Prize for her efforts. The story is a period piece set in upper class New York of the late 1800s. First filmed by Warner Brothers in 1924 and later adapted for the stage in 1928 by Margaret Ayer Barnes, the story received its first sound film treatment in 1934 by RKO Radio. That version ran a brisk 82 minutes and starred Irene Dunne, John Boles, and Julie Haydon in the three principal roles.
By the late 1980s, director Martin Scorsese was ready to undertake a period film himself and, acting on a suggestion by Time magazine critic Jay Cocks, decided that The Age of Innocence would be that film. Scorsese and Cocks collaborated on several drafts of the screenplay before they had a version they were finally happy with in 1991. Casting went fairly smoothly with Scorsese’s first choices for two of the principal roles — Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer — agreeing to participate. The third principal was more difficult, but finally Winona Ryder proved to be a fit for Scorsese’s vision of the role. Shooting began in March 1992 with Troy, New York standing in for New York City of the 1870s, and finished in Paris in June of the same year. Almost 12 months of editing followed and the completed product was released in 1993. The Age of Innocence opened to mixed critical and public reaction and later garnered five Academy Award nominations for Art Direction, Music, Supporting Actress (Ryder), Writing, and Costume Design, but winning only for the latter.
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has now released The Age of Innocence on DVD in a very fine looking and sounding transfer.
Newland Archer is an attorney living at the center of upper-class society in New York City of the 1870s. He becomes engaged to the lovely young socialite May Welland and resigns himself to the quiet life. With a lengthy engagement in the offing, his complacency is disturbed by the arrival from Europe of May’s cousin, the Countess Olenska, who is on the verge of divorcing her husband. Archer’s legal advice on the divorce is sought and he persuades the Countess that the resulting scandal would be harmful to both her and her relatives. She agrees to put aside the divorce, but Archer realizes that he may be falling in love with her himself. The two eventually confess their mutual love for each other, and begin a secret relationship that casts a shadow over Archer’s marriage to May and the couple’s future happiness.
For some reason or other, the idea of Martin Scorsese directing a period movie reminds me of James Cagney in the late 1930s. Cagney was closely identified with gangster films of the era, so when WB announced that he would star in a 1939 western called The Oklahoma Kid, it seemed somewhat ridiculous to imagine the actor with his street-smart city persona plunked down into a saddle in the old west. Yet the result was completely satisfying. Cagney’s fast-talking approach seemed to stand him in good stead as a cynical western good guy and the energy and acting skill he brought to the part soon made one forget any misgivings. Flash forward now to the late 1980s, and the idea of Martin Scorsese, king of the tough, modern, urban crime film making a genteel period piece just didn’t seem to be a good fit on the surface. But talent will out and the results were very pleasing, although not as a completely successful as Scorsese might have liked. The analogy between Cagney and Scorsese isn’t ideal of course, for in fact, Scorsese had already shown his willingness to undertake a number of different types of movies, including a musical (New York, New York), a documentary (The Last Waltz), and a biblical epic (The Last Temptation of Christ) — well, maybe not epic in the expansive sense of the word. So undertaking a period piece wasn’t in reality such a surprise. After all, it was still set in New York. Maybe Scorsese needs to do a western to make us really raise our eyebrows.
I think The Age of Innocence should appeal to anyone who likes films of a drawing room, period nature. It’s certainly well acted and Scorsese’s framing choices are a delight to behold. The film’s greatest strength lies in its attention to accurate detail in terms of set decoration and costuming. The slightest mis-step in these areas can ruin a period film, because if one doesn’t feel the era has been realistically invoked, nothing else is going to be able to compensate. I can honestly say that I felt completely drawn in by this film and there was never an instance where I felt that things were contrived. And by the way, don’t start this film if you’re hungry. Scorsese lingers lovingly over some of the plates of food that are served at various points in the film; the food not only is tempting to eat, but it’s great to just look at, so well arranged and displayed is it on the dishes. Music is also a constant pleasure throughout the film. We get a combination of new work by Elmer Bernstein and familiar classical pieces. Sumptuous is a good word to describe the look, feel, and sound of The Age of Innocence.
The Age of Innocence benefits from a fine cast. Daniel Day-Lewis (Newland Archer), Michelle Pfeiffer (Countess Olenska), and Winona Ryder (May Welland) are all actors who generally seem to make good decisions in terms of the parts they accept. None has made a mistake here. They look at home in the costumes and contribute substantially to the overall sense of reality projected by the film All three convey so well in their faces the inner turmoil that convention prevents them from expressing out loud. A number of familiar faces bolster the supporting cast, including Geraldine Chaplin, Mary Beth Hurt, Jonathan Pryce, and Alexis Smith. Miriam Margolyes is particularly a delight as Mrs. Mingott. Joanne Woodward provides narration with a touch of class.
Columbia has another winner here in its DVD transfer of The Age of Innocence. The image is 2.35:1 anamorphic and generally looks tremendous. For the most part, the picture is clean and clear, free of any defects. Blacks are deep and glossy; whites are very clean; and shadow detail is excellent. Colour rendition is simply stunning. Edge enhancement is not an issue. There are, however, a couple of occasions when there is a general softness to the image, which may be more attributable to the source material than anything else. Overall, I believe you will be very happy with what Columbia has accomplished on this one. A distinct improvement over the previous laserdisc version
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is another pleasure of this disc. There is little use of the surrounds, but otherwise the film’s music is conveyed warmly and lushly. This is a disc whose sound can be cranked up to fill your space with marvelous-sounding melodies. One slight quibble is the surround effect occurring with a couple of scenes involving fireplaces. The crackling of the fire comes out of the surrounds when the fireplace is clearly in front of us.
If there is a problem with this film, it’s in the pacing. In 1934, RKO managed to tell this story in less than an hour and a half. Scorsese takes 138 minutes, and while it’s all pleasant to look at, the film can tend to drag during the second half. I think 20 minutes could have been trimmed to good effect.
I must also confess to some disappointment with Columbia’s effort on supplementary material. A theatrical trailer (I don’t count three trailers for other Columbia releases), filmographies for the three principal actors and the director, and two pages of production notes represents a pretty slim package for a film that cries out for a commentary and/or a documentary on the set decoration and costuming.
Despite my couple of quibbles above, I enjoyed this film and its DVD presentation very much. You have to be in the mood for a period piece, but if you are, The Age of Innocence won’t disappoint. Columbia continues a good recent record on the quality of its audio and video transfers.