Revisiting “The Age of Innocence” for the first time in many years doesn’t erase first impressions of the film. But it does make you marvel at the many times Martin Scorsese chose to tackle ambitious projects far removed from the American Master’s comfort zone.
Back in 1993, much was made of the movie maker who seemed married to the mob taking on a passions-never-allowed-to-boil Edith Wharton romance, a 19th century period piece of baroque wealth in an emerging New York.
But he’s been breaking out of his pigeon hole all along, as the great ones inevitably do. “Hugo,” “The Aviator,” “Kundun,” “Silence,” “The Last Temptation of Christ, and “Boxcar Bertha” — Scorsese has always reached beyond the cinema he’s known for.
He’s not shied away from “period” even in stories and milieus more in his wheelhouse, either — “Raging Bull,” “Gangs of New York,” “Shutter Island.”
“Innocence” came out in the middle on the ongoing Jane Austen mania, and suffered by comparison. It’s dry and not the least bit witty. The cutting, gossipy dialogue is cruel, not clever. The confessions of passion PBS soap operatic.
“I just want us to be together!”
“I can’t be your wife, Newland! Is it your idea that I should live with you as your mistress?”
That’s Wharton’s take on America’s emerging aristocracy of wealth — bluff, blunt to the point of inelegant.
But the exposition and gossip-heavy exchanges felt dated then and more so now, with characters repeating the phrase that’s just been uttered to them in mock movie melodrama quaintness. Scorsese’s weakest scripts — “Gangs of New York,” “Silence” and “Innocence” — were co-written by his longtime collaborator, critic-turned-screenwriter Jay Cocks.
The 1870s to @1910 story concerns the interlocking circles of high-born attorney Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his beloved, May Welland (Winona Ryder), and how those are interrupted when a beautiful but woebegone relation of the Wellands, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), returns home from an unhappy marriage to lesser European nobility.
She’s heading for a divorce, and Newland — engaged and eventually married to the dull but charming May — is overcome by the spark, smile, vulnerability and sexual heat of the smouldering Countess.
Ryder, 22 when “Innocence” came out, seemed miscast way back when. But the remove of several decades let you see the inner resources and grit of a character whose surface is studied dullness.
“What are you reading?”
“Oh, it’s a book about Japan.”
As if she can’t think of a reason anyone would be curious about the world beyond their reach.
Ryder was an “old” 20something, one of the greatest actresses of her generation. A bit out of place, here, but not as bothersome.
I was more taken aback by how the great Daniel Day-Lewis comes off, starchy and “proper” which is very much in character, but fey and unmanly. The robber baron classes flattered themselves on their American masculinity (back then, anyway), and he seems off — Dr. Zhivago soft.
The supporting cast has a couple of highlights — Norman Lloyd and Miriam Margolyes were heralded at the time of release. But too many smaller roles were forgettably cast, with few of the caliber of Michael Gough, Richard E. Grant, Mary Beth Hurt (a single scene) or Geraldine Chaplin brought on board, and even that illustrious quartet was left with little to do other than don evening wear, light cigars and decorate the immaculately recreated sets.
Eagle-eyed viewers will spot future Oscar nominee June Squibb (“About Schmidt,” “Nebraska”) as a maid.
The nouveau riche gaucherie is more subtle than you’d like — a J.M.W. Turner reproduction hanging here, a quartet of suited-servants carrying Granny (Margolyes) in a sedan chair there.
Still, Scorsese magnificently captures the provocative allure of removing a lady’s glove before kissing her hand, even if Day-Lewis takes that “sex scene” to an amusingly voracious pitch.
It’s good to remember how marvelous Pfeiffer could be in a period piece and why she attained her status as the sexy dramatic lead of her day.
Some regard “The Age of Innocence” as essential American cinema or essential Scorsese. I don’t. It’s arid when it should have a hint of “droll,” theatrical and stagey when we’re meant to believe these people “live” in this world.
Scorsese never lets us forget he’s an outsider looking in, tiptoeing through the material as if he’s afraid of bumping the porcelain off the lacquered “oriental” end tables and pedestals.
MPAA Rating: PG, for thematic elements and mild profanity.
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Geraldine Chaplin, Richard E. Grant, Stuart Wilson, Mary Beth Hurt, Norman Lloyd and Miriam Margolyes.
Credits: Directed by Martin Scorsese, script by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese. A Columbia release.
Running time: 2:19