Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
One of my very favorite things about Martin Scorsese is that his love for all kinds of films is reflected in the variety of genres he’s explored as a filmmaker. Yes, he’s done a couple of crime films, but he’s also done a mystery thriller, a musical, screwball comedy/noir mixture, hell, in 2011 Scorsese embarked on a $165 million budgeted 3D kids movie! Scorsese doesn’t just love one type of filmmaking, he loves all films and that’s led him to dip his toes into an excitingly wide range of genres over the years. His foray into period-era costume romance cinema, The Age of Innocence, is one of the very best encapsulations of Scorsese’s versatility.
Set in New York City in the 1870s, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a lawyer with a good life. His occupation is respectable, his position in society is solid and he’s about to be wed off to May Welland (Winona Ryder). While he awaits his new matrimonial union, Welland’s cousin, Ellen Olensaka (Michelle Pfieffer), comes to town. Her reputation plagued by a recent divorce, Olensaka is thought of in a lowly manner by everyone in town. Despite that, as well as his commitments to Welland, Archer can’t help but begin to be infatuated with Olensaka. She’s just so unique and her approach to New York society reflects his own unorthodox views of the world.
A love triangle ensues, one where Newland’s tendency to speak privately about bucking tradition but publically adhering to customs begins to hinder his potential new romance. The world of The Age of Innocence is fleshed out via narration delivered by Joanna Woodward. Screenwriters Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese give Woodward so many ingeniously-written lines of dialogue to help solidify what kind of world Newland Archer and company occupy. For example, look at Woodward’s line about how upper-class New Yorkers communicate through letters that function as “hieroglyphs”. This comparison vividly conveys how these people always conceal their true intentions and feelings. You must really dig deep into each piece of correspondence to find out what’s really going on.
Throughout The Age of Innocence, the narration helps to reinforce the idea that this part of New York society is a world unto itself, one with decades of history at its back. Not only is this dialogue well-written and entertaining to listen to, but conveying this history makes it clear how imposing tradition is for Newland Archer. Woodward’s narration detailing how certain customs have played out for decades is just fun to listen to for the viewer. For Archer, the prospect of eschewing those long-standing local customs is terrifying. They’re like a giant weight tied to his ankle that keeps him from running towards his own ambitions.
While the narration is a critical role in The Age of Innocence, this movie certainly knows when to just let the on-screen visual speak for themselves. Scorsese’s direction and Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography both revel in an absorbing sense of romanticism. Their visual style runs on luscious colors and images that immediately convey a sense of romantic longing. That shot of Newland looking off at a distant Olenska standing on a pier at sunset is a perfect instance of this. The gorgeous colors in the sky accentuate a powerful sense of wistful desire. Both Newland and Olenska are silent through this whole sequence and why shouldn’t they be? Every shot in this scene already captures the emotions of their characters, dialogue really isn’t required.
Equally impressive is the work done by costume designer Gabriella Pescucci. Rare is the scene in The Age of Innocence where characters aren’t adorned in some kind of get-up that just screams elegance. Even characters staying indoors, like Mrs. Mingott (Miriam Margoyles), are dressed in absolutely radiant outfits. These costumes are brought to life through exquisite colors and marvelous fabric materials that truly make them feel like things that could actually be worn by people rather than tepid recreations of period-era attire. Perscucci’s costumes in The Age of Innocence’s are utterly impressive in every way and help to cement this production as a total visual feast.
Though Innocence’s visual qualities are a luscious achievement, Cocks and Scorsese’s screenwriting makes sure to imbue the proceedings with real thematic heft. Scorsese’s dedication to following his characters over lengthy periods of time is especially responsible for Innocence’s compelling drama. Archer’s struggle between tradition and personal impulses get rendered in an exceedingly detailed fashion as we follow him for years on end. The ripple effects of each of his actions are always reverberating throughout the movie while his persistent affection for Olenska takes on an increasingly bittersweet quality as the film progresses. Meanwhile, the way the screenplay depicts this society quietly reinforcing the status quo is marvelous. Biting pieces of throwaway dialogue can sting like knives when they’re used to keep people like Olesnka and Archer from upsetting the norm.
Scorsese’s overall remarkable direction beautifully reflects this aspect of the story, particularly in an extended single-take where the camera starts with Archer at a dinner table before panning back to reveal a crowded table full of people that have sullied Olenska’s name. Though the other people at the table are just idly chatting with one another, Scorsese’s camerawork (combined with a piece of illuminating narration) conveys what kind of malicious matters are lurking underneath the surface of these individuals. I also love the old-timey filmmaking techniques Scorsese employs to emphasize the attraction between Archer and Olenska. During an encounter between the duo at the opera, the two of them are framed in a circle while the rest of the frame is occupied with blackness. It’s a technique dating back to the 1920s but it gets revived here to great effect. Whether it’s filmmaking techniques or just period-era romances, The Age of Innocence has a gift for making the old feel so brand-new and so captivating.