Saturday, October 18, 2014

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE: Blu-ray (Columbia 1993) Sony Home Entertainment

Filmed twice during the late silent era, Edith Wharton’s novel about the manners and mores of blue-blooded New York society at the turn of the last century, The Age of Innocence, was already a cultural touchstone by 1923; a sort of scandalous stripping away of all the courtly hypocrisies of, then, contemporary life. On the surface, propriety commanded a rigid set of dictates to harness and keep steadfast and pure the behaviors of its gentry.  However, as Wharton’s novel was to illustrate, there was duplicity in this exercise. Using a traditional lover’s triangle, Wharton bared an undercarriage of sexual intrigues; in essence, a real bodice-ripping exposé on her time and class. Not that Wharton would have considered the novel as such. In fact, Wharton had penned The Age of Innocence as a minor apology for The House of Mirth, her fourth novel; far more scathingly critical about such things.
The Age of Innocence is essentially a tale of one man - gentleman lawyer and heir apparent, Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis) - dominated by the two women in his life; the first, his seemingly naïve ingénue of a bride, May Welland (Wynona Ryder, who will prove more enterprising in her own desires to anchor him to the social conventions of their caste) and her cousin, the more free-spirited Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who brutalizes Newland’s lust for her; first, by willingly offering it up to his infatuated caprice, then by cruelly denying him more than a faint reminiscence of their brief time together; thereby driving him to wild distractions. The women, each aware of what the other is up to, spar on an intellectual plain, their battle of temperaments causing occasional friction in Newland and May’s marriage and all but wrecking any chance Newland might have had to remain happily ensconced in this caste of traditions without the nagging thought he has probably settled in his marriage at the expense of finding truer happiness elsewhere.
In adapting the novel for the screen this third time around, director Martin Scorsese has assumed a monumental task; The Age of Innocence (1993) receiving an all-star and decidedly lavish treatment – alas, less narratively compelling, if mesmerizingly beautiful. The screenplay, co-authored by Jay Cocks and Scorsese slavishly adheres to the novel; excising whole passages with a voiceover narration provided by Joanne Woodward (who does not appear in the film) designed to expedite our various introductions to these characters. Visually at least, Scorsese’s film is a masterpiece; Michael Ballhaus’ luminous cinematography married to some opulent period recreations: Dante Ferretti’s production design, Speed Hopkins art direction and Robert J. Franco and Amy Marshall’s set decoration, perfectly complimented by Gabriella Pescucci’s costuming. Point blank: The Age of Innocence is an A-list super production of immense scope and infinite style. That it somehow lacks the impetus of an absorbing melodrama is a tad perplexing, and most certainly something of a letdown; the actors delivering their schematic dialogue with grace and polish, but strangely, with an antiseptic inability to breathe the necessary life into these words. As such, The Age of Innocence quickly devolves into a clinical exercise rather than an astute regression from, and observation of, the period.  
In hindsight, Scorsese was, perhaps, the wrong director for such an ambitiously high concept. His approach to the romanticized drama is low key. There’s a complete absence of the director's more famous verve for gripping action; Scorsese’s métier undeniably centered on contemporary tales about organized crime.  Scorsese’s direction herein is quite unlike what we expect from him. It’s fairly obvious he is heavily invested in making The Age of Innocence a resplendent period picture; showcasing all of the intricacies of the gilded age. There is, in fact, a sublime joy to be gleaned from Scorsese’s complete immersion into culture; meticulously composed moving portraits of a bygone era; Scorsese’s resurrection of ‘the age’ itself fairly reeking of his consummate professionalism as a film maker. Edith Wharton would be right at home in the grand majesty of Scorsese’s turn of the century New York. And yet, there exists more than a faint whiff of embalming fluid emanating from the peripheries of the screen; a sort of veiled reminder that what we see is, in fact, a museum-inspired antiquity or animated waxworks, instead of a suspension of disbelief in the illusion itself.
The oddity is that neither Scorsese nor the actors can entirely be blamed for this fault. It isn’t easy to pinpoint the lack of spark, perhaps because The Age of Innocence prodigiously excels in so many facets of its production. The weakest performance of the lot is Wynona Ryder’s giddy green girl; interminably wrinkling her nose and letting out with a squeak to suggest her joyful bemusement at allowing Newland his more amorous affection; a peck on the lips in public, as example. Alas, it’s all just an act; Ryder’s May Welland, a devious little peacock, incrementally tugging on the yolk about her husband’s neck until he is resigned to surrender all hope of ever being his own man; or, at least, Ellen’s illicit lover.  No, that void in the unhappy countess’ life will be filled by Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson), the Teflon-coated, middle-age bon vivant and notorious womanizer.
The Age of Innocence is, in fact, the story of morally corrupt, manifestly irresponsible and devilishly manipulative individuals, putting on their priggish airs while playing a rather delicious game of seduction. Apart from the aforementioned three principle players, the picture is extremely well cast: Geraldine Chaplin as May’s fussing mama; Richard E. Grant as Larry Lefferts – the foremost proponent and social commentator on style and form; Alec McGowan as elder statesman, Sillerton Jackson – a veritable magpie of gossip; Miriam Margolyes as the invalided, though enterprising dowager of half of New York’s ‘polite society’, Mrs. Mingott; Carolyn Farina, as Newland’s younger sister, Janey Archer, and, Siân Phillips as their mother; Norman Lloyd, Mr. Letterblair, an elder partner in Newland’s law firm and finally, Jonathan Price as Rivière; the social secretary to Madam Olenska’s estranged husband, the Count. Scorsese is working with some heavy-hitting talent here. Alas, the central focus on the love triangle makes short shrift of all the aforementioned players; mere – if supremely elegant and accomplished – window dressing.
Immediately following a stunning main title sequence designed by Elaine and Saul Bass (calligraphy letters matted onto fine lace and a time lapse of various flower buds ripening before our eyes; symbolic of the flurry of passion, presumably about to unfurl),The Age of Innocence begins at the New York Opera House, gathering place for the hoi poloi. Newland Archer is in his box, along with Larry Lefferts and Sillerton Jackson; the wily old coot far more intrigued by the presence of the Countess Ellen Olenska, seated across the auditorium in a box with Mrs. Welland and May. It seems the Countess has fled a marriage where she is rumored to have been mistreated badly. While Jackson and Lefferts slyly debate the possible intrigues, Newland skulks off to May’s box; formally introduced to the Countess. She reminds him of their playful youth together and he is amused by how unchanged she seems; her joy at the opera his first real taste of the woman who will come to challenge his own sense of morality before too long.
Regina Beaufort (Mary Beth Hurt) departs the opera ahead of everyone else. As one of the matrons of New York society she must make ready the elegant home she shares with Julius for the annual ball. Newland attends, as does May and her mother. Either from a sense of propriety, or perhaps mere concern she will be branded a social outcast, Ellen elects to abstain; lying to May about her dress not being “smart enough.”  Julius arrives late to his own party, the implication being he has been off somewhere consummating an extramarital affair.  Newland is quite obtuse to this notion. Indeed, the following evening as he, his sister Janey and their mother entertain Sillerton at dinner, the conversation inevitably shifts to the Countess; Sillerton only too jovial to pry and probe with innuendoes of impropriety. Newland questions why any woman trapped in a bitter marriage should be condemned for wanting to better her prospects elsewhere. His cool resistance to Sillerton’s criticisms of Ellen translates into our first faint glimmers of a more tangibly eroticism brewing from within. 
Mrs. Mingott offers to give a part in honor of the Countess. The crème de la crème of New York are invited to this soiree – but decline the invitation, citing ‘prior commitments’. The insinuation, however, is painfully clear. Anyone who welcomes the Countess Olenska will be shunned. Newland is outraged, appealing his case to Henry van der Luyden (Michael Gough) and his wife, Louisa (Alexis Smith). As leaders of polite society no one would dare question their authority should they choose to accept the Countess into their genteel circle of friends.  The van der Luydens are empathetic and agree to host a fashionable dinner engagement, expressly to welcome the Countess. The occasion is a success, but Newland is strangely drawn to Ellen in a way he did not anticipate. She politely questions his fidelity to May; Newland steadfast to his bride-to-be, but increasingly becoming distracted by impure thoughts about the Countess. Newland offers to act as a broker to find Ellen a house. As she intends to remain in New York – and is May’s cousin – surely no one will think anything of his philanthropic gesture.
Regrettably, Newland grows distant, then jealous, when the Countess begins seeing Julius Beaufort on the side. His sexual frustrations are manifested in a plea to May; to expedite their long-term engagement. Mrs. Mingott approves. But Newland has already begun to question his motives in marrying May, and increasingly discovers his love has insincerely cooled since Ellen’s arrival. At the same instance, the Countess makes plans to divorce her husband – an absolutely unheard of occurrence, and one sure to send shockwaves of impending scandal across the bow of both households. Mr. Letterblair approaches Newland with a request; to an indefinite postponement of the divorce. Newland is appalled by the suggestion. But his own feelings for the Countess are now painfully transparent.
Placed into an impossible situation, Newland professes his love to Ellen, she reciprocating it, but then becoming modestly unsettled by how it will impact May. The Countess agrees to an awkward truce: to remain in America, though still married to the Count. This sort of marital imprisonment is hateful to both Ellen and Newland. But it also serves as a buffer. So long as Ellen abides by its edict, Newland should not consider their consummating their love for one another. In the meantime, May sends a telegram agreeing to wed Newland well before the period of courtship has run its natural course. From this moment forward, The Age of Innocence will prove a hell set in the heavenly trappings of a not one, but two sham marriages. For Newland no longer loves May; forever poisoned by his strong desires to possess Ellen. Nevertheless, he and May marry; their honeymoon, a grand tour of Europe where they inadvertently meet Rivière, the Count’s secretary. Rivière informs Newland that Count Olenska has expressed an urge for his wife’s return. Newland is outraged but impotent to suggest any alternative without making his true feelings known.
Upon their return to America, Newland and May attend Mrs. Mingott at her summer home in Rhode Island. In the late afterglow of a warm summer afternoon, Mrs. Mingott sends Newland down to the docks to fetch Ellen. He obliges, but then hesitates when Ellen is near, casually staring off across the open waters. Newland makes himself a promise: only if Ellen turns around will he gesture to her. She does not, however, and Newland returns to Mrs. Mingott’s; lying he could not find Ellen to bring her back. Time passes. But Newland’s carnal thirst for Ellen only seems to ripen in her absence. He fantasizes about a reunion, despises himself for being untrue to his wife – if only in his thoughts – but cannot help be short-tempered with May.  Having reached an impossible stalemate, the family cuts off Ellen’s allowance – presumably to force her return to her husband. Instead, she departs for New York City to nurse her ailing grandmother. Mrs. Mingott accepts Ellen’s need to be rid of her husband and reinstates her stipend, thereby affording her financial independence to do as she wishes. Newland is wildly distracted by this prospect. Perhaps now he and Ellen can find some way to be together. 

Unfortunately, the lady is unwilling – even to become his mistress. Newland’s pursuit of Ellen is rather insidious and predicated on fulfilling no one’s gratification except his own; the Cocks/Scorsese screenplay illustrating the transgressive quality of his lust. Ellen relents to Newman’s demands. But she then elects to return to Europe with all speed. Incensed, Newland decides to tell May he is in love with her cousin, intending to leave May at the earliest possible moment. Instead, she interrupts his declaration with an announcement she is pregnant, also revealing to Newland she deliberately told Ellen about the baby nearly two weeks earlier, even before she was certain of it. The insinuation is May has known all along of Newland’s passion for Ellen but is determined to anchor him to his sense of duty toward her – whatever the cost and/or manipulation.
Realizing Ellen’s decision to return to her husband is predicated on May’s revelation does not soften this blow, as Newland cannot leave the woman who is carrying his child without erecting a scandal of epic proportions, certain to blacken his own family’s status in the social register for generations yet to follow. Years pass: twenty-six all told. May dies of fever, thinking the world a fine place. Newland is left to rear their two children. Their adult son, Ted (Robert Sean Leonard) encourages Newland to take a trip abroad to Paris, informing his father he has tracked down the Countess Olenska. She has, in fact, agreed to see them. However, as the men stroll toward her fashionable atelier, Newland cannot but acknowledge how time has withered him. No doubt, Ellen has changed this much too.
At the last possible moment, Newland declines the invitation, leaving Ted to go up alone. As he had done on the pier many years earlier, Newland plays a game in his own mind: that if Ellen looks out her open window he will join Ted upstairs to reminisce about old times. Alas, not long after Ted has left to go upstairs, the window to Ellen’s apartment is closed shut by a maid’s hand; the sun’s reflection blinding a moment or two without Ellen’s appearance at the window. Newland realizes too much time has elapsed. He is not the same man. Perhaps the only place he and Ellen can ever truly coexist is within the memories of his heart. He turns and walks away, destined to never see her again.
In these penultimate moments of surrender, The Age of Innocence attains a sort of tragic clarity about love, desire and destiny; the triage in Newland’s life pursuits disentangled, perhaps for the very first time since his first glimpse of Ellen at the opera. He is no longer possessed by fickle passion; perhaps, even able to retain his respectability without the nagging doubt he has sacrificed his entire life to a dream remembered. There’s a supremely satisfying sense of finality to these final moments; an exquisite decay lain waste to the people they once were, perished in each other’s absence and denied their unsaid farewells. Daniel Day Lewis’ glance is both world-weary and edifying; a revelation of the queer dictates tugging within the human heart. Newland’s desire for Ellen remains intact; colored by the passage of time into something more finely ripened, yet unattainable. Preserving Ellen’s memory will have to sustain Newland now.
The Age of Innocence was hardly a hit. In fact, it grossed only $2 million more in the U.S. than its $30 million budget. Yet, the movies’ lack of popularity cannot entirely be blamed on Martin Scorsese. Certainly, none of the artistic decisions he has made in bringing Wharton’s novel to the screen have wrecked its chances for success. Perhaps, audiences in general, and fans of Scorsese in particular, were anticipating an edgier affair. Indeed, The Age of Innocence is hardly taut or even tantalizing; its narrative tension sustained by subtle glances across a crowded drawing room; no violent fits or outburst, no wildly careening camera movements.  Without Scorsese’s screen credit, The Age of Innocence is quite unlike anything the director has committed to film. And without his acknowledged contribution, The Age of Innocence plays very much like a courtly English drawing room comedy of errors – something from the Ealing Studios, albeit with a far grander cost. We must also reconsider the aftereffects and fervor created by the multi-Oscar-nominated production of E.M. Forrester’s Howards End (1992) and Merchant/Ivory’s superb follow-up; The Remains of the Day (released the same year as The Age of Innocence) each, a beacon or ‘how to’ make period costume dramas. In competition with these superiorly scripted stories, the former having taken artistic liberties with Forrester’s novel, Scorsese’s unoriginal faithfulness to Wharton’s text exposes the chinks in any ‘literal’ literary adaptation for the movie screen.
The Age of Innocence would have been better had Scorsese afforded himself the luxury to experiment; to be passionate about the art of film-making and depart from the authoress’ prose; if only to illustrate how he might have ‘improved’ upon an already iconic masterwork. Instead, we get 2hrs. and 19 min. of Wharton incarnate; deftly executed, but minus Scorsese’s ability to enthrall and captivate an audience as only he distinctly can when inspired to dabble and mesmerize us with his ballsy creativity.  Yet, it’s difficult to condemn the movie outright as a failure. Artistically, it remains on very highborn ground; its technical merits unsurpassed, its meticulous attention to setting and place arguably unparalleled. This is, in fact, a ravishing exaltation of the period in which Wharton lived; a breathtaking movie to behold; alas, one that also fails to ignite or excite an audience. It wholly lacks even a spark of dramatic tragedy, despite its sublime techniques.  Like its visuals, The Age of Innocence score by Elmer Bernstein is ravishing. Yet, here too, it blunders into grandiosity; providing a sense of the gilded age without ever foreshadowing the more ominous overtones of promiscuity behind closed doors. The implications of closeted sexual desires are not enough to propel the story forward. In the end, we are left with a cast of mostly impotent ne'er do wells who think naughtier than they do – or perhaps, are.
Sony appears to have forsaken the North American market where their catalog Blu-ray is concerned, because The Age of Innocence is available virtually everywhere except on this side of the pond. Thankfully, this import (from Hong Kong, no less) is region free and with English packaging to boot! All of the European derivatives have cover art translated into various foreign languages. I hesitate to slam Sony for their absence in North America, particularly since I lack the particulars as to why they continue to neglect potential dollars here, but I will maintain very high marks for Grover Crisp’s commitment to ensuring virtually all Sony catalog comes to hi-def Blu-ray looking immaculate and head-and-shoulders above its SD predecessors. The Age of Innocence is no less impressive.
This 1080p image is stunning; razor-sharp crispness without untoward edge effects, richly saturated colors; superior amounts of fine detail that pop with unexpected dimensionality, exquisite contrast levels and film grain looking natural as it should. Flesh tones are accurately rendered; and greens, reds and blacks look spectacularly rich and appealing. One minor quibble: as Newland Archer arrives at the Beufort’s ball, Scorsese’s impressive long tracking shot is momentarily marred by some age-related artifacts; an oddity indeed, since the rest of the print used in this mastering effort is virtually blemish free. Otherwise, you are going to love this disc. The audio is DTS 5.1 and as impressive; yielding an unanticipated richness in its bass. One renewable regret: no extras. The Age of Innocence has never been given consideration in this regard: a pity. Bottom line: for fans – very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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