THE AGE OF INNOCENCE: Blu-ray (Columbia, 1993) Criterion Collection
Filmed twice during the late silent era, Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence - all about the manners and mores of blue-blooded New York society at the turn of the last century, was already a cultural touchstone by 1923; a sort of scandalous stripping away of the courtly polish and hypocrisies of, then, contemporary life. On the surface, propriety demanded a stringent set of criteria to harness, keep steadfast and purify the behaviors of its gentry. However, as Wharton’s novel illustrates, there was a social subclass of avarice and duplicity working against this exercise. Using the time-honored convention of star-crossed lovers, Wharton’s telling exposed the undercarriage of society at large and, its suppressed, though more than salacious fascination with sexual intrigues. Hard to digest now, but The Age of Innocence was a real bodice-ripper when it came out. 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 that had been far more scathing and 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 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 desires to anchor Newland to the 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 as a power-brokering bon vivant without the nagging thought he has probably settled in his marriage at the expense of finding truer happiness – and eroticism aplenty – 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 compelling as a plot, if mesmerizing in its beauty. The screenplay, co-authored by Jay Cocks and Scorsese slavishly adheres to the novel; excising whole passages with a voice over 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 a peerless, A-list super production of immense scope and infinite style. That it somehow lacks impetus as 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, 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 demure melodrama. His approach to the folly of Newland’s lustful badinage with Ellen is low key. There is a complete absence of the director's more infamous 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 in the realities of this bygone culture; meticulously composed moving portraits; Scorsese’s resurrection of ‘the age’ 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 what we see is, in fact, a museum-inspired antiquity of animated waxworks rather than a suspension of disbelief in the illusions spun by Wharton’s fictional characters.
The oddity is 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, notorious womanizer.
The Age of Innocence is, in fact, a story of morally corrupt, manifestly irresponsible and devilishly manipulative individuals, putting on their priggish airs while playing a rather insidious game of seduction. Apart from the aforementioned three principles, 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 Mrs. Mingott - the invalided, though enterprising dowager to half of New York’s ‘polite society’; 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 – and quite possibly, her ex-lover. Scorsese is working with some heavy-hitting talent here. But the central focus on the love triangle makes short shrift of virtually all these 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 buds ripening before our eyes; symbolic of the flurry of passion 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 from a marriage to a monster; the Count, pure Euro-trash with fetishistic depravities aplenty, leaving Ellen scarred, scared and quite alone. While Jackson and Lefferts slyly debate the possible intrigues, Newland skulks off to May’s box; formally introduced to the Countess by May. Ellen reminds Newland 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 wanton, Ellen abstains; 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 tangible eroticism brewing from within.
Mrs. Mingott offers to give a party in honor of the Countess. The crème de la crème of New York is invited to this soiree – but decline en masse, citing ‘prior commitments’. The insinuation, however, is painfully clear. Anyone who even dares acknowledge 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 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. Newland is strangely drawn to Ellen in a way he did not anticipate. She politely questions his fidelity to May. Newland is steadfast to his bride-to-be, but increasingly becomes distracted by impure thoughts about the Countess. He 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 this 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 for 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 – absolutely unheard of, sending shockwaves of scandal to overwhelm both households. Mr. Letterblair approaches Newland with a request; to an indefinite postponement of the divorce. Newland is appalled. But his own feelings for the Countess are now painfully transparent.
Placed into an impossible situation, Newland professes his love to Ellen. She reciprocates 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, Newland should not consider his consummating their love for one another a sin against May. In the meantime, May sends a telegram agreeing to wed Newland well before their natural period of courtship has run its course. From this moment forward, The Age of Innocence will prove a hell in its heavenly trappings: not one, but two sham marriages. For Newland no longer loves May, forever poisoned by his strong desire to possess Ellen. Nevertheless, he and May are wed; their honeymoon, a grand tour of Europe where, inadvertently May meets Rivière, the Count’s secretary. Rivière informs Newland the Count has expressed an urgency for his wife’s return. Newland is disgusted 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 on 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 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; lying he could not find Ellen to bring her back. Time passes. But Newland’s carnal thirst for Ellen only grows more parched in her absence. He fantasizes about a reunion, despises himself for being ‘technically’ untrue to his own wife and cannot help be short-tempered with May. Having reached an impossible stalemate, the family cuts off Ellen’s allowance – presumably to hasten 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 allowance, 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 clandestine way to be together.
Unfortunately, the lady is unwilling – even to be 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 a transgressive quality to 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 his wife at the earliest possible moment for whatever may be waiting on the other side of the Atlantic. Instead, May interrupts Newland before his declaration with an announcement of her own: she is pregnant. May also reveals to Newland she deliberately told Ellen about the baby 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 duty toward her – whatever the cost.
Realizing Ellen’s decision to return to her husband has been predicated on May’s revelation does not soften this blow, as Newland cannot leave the woman who is carrying his child without a scandal of epic proportions, certain to blacken his 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 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 his memories of her. No doubt, Ellen has changed as much.
At the last possible moment, Newland declines the invitation, leaving Ted to go on alone. As he had done on the pier many years earlier, Newland plays a game in his own mind: 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 Newland a moment or two without Ellen ever appearing at the window. Newland realizes too much time has passed. He is not the same man. Perhaps the only place he and Ellen can ever truly coexist now is in the memories that remain quietly locked away in his heart. Without remorse, Newland turns and walks away, destined never to see Ellen 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 pursuits disentangled for him so very long ago by May’s steadying hand. Whatever decisions were made on his behalf in his youth, he has maintained the façade and played the charade to perfection. No longer dictated and haunted by his fickle passion he has escaped with his respectability intact and without the nagging doubt he has sacrificed his entire life for a dream remembered. There is something supremely satisfying in this sense of finality; an exquisite decay lain waste to the people Newland and Ellen once were; the myth to have perished in each other’s absence, denied its unsaid farewells. Daniel Day Lewis’ glance is both world-weary and edifying; a revelation of the queer tugging within an all too fragile and human heart. Newland’s desire for Ellen, still colored despite the passage of the years, has morphed into something finer, yet still as unattainable. Preserving Ellen’s memory will have to sustain Newland now.
The Age of Innocence was hardly a smash hit. In fact, it grossed only $2 million more in the U.S. than its $30 million budget. Why? Its artistic merits are impeccable. Were audiences in general, and fans of Scorsese in particular, 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 might just as easily have been a Merchant-Ivory production or a courtly English drawing room comedy of errors – something from the Ealing Studios in their prime, albeit on a far grander scale. 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 veritable ‘how to’ make period costume dramas. In competition with these superior scripted dramas; the former, having taken artistic liberties with Forster’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 2 hrs. 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 virtually unparalleled. This is, in fact, a ravishing exaltation of the period in which Wharton lived; a breathtaking movie to behold if foundering and failing to ignite or excite an audience. It wholly lacks the intrinsic spark of dramatic tragedy. Like its visuals, The Age of Innocence’s score by Elmer Bernstein is ravishing, yet perhaps, ever so slightly blundering into an orchestral grandiloquence - too gilded even for the gilded age without ever foreshadowing the more ominous overtones of promiscuity behind closed doors. If it had been made in the fifties – even the sixties – the implication of closeted sexual mores might have been enough to crackle and amuse. It’s not enough, however, to propel the story forward. In the end, we are left with some superb waxworks of mostly impotent ne'er do wells who think naughtier than they do – or perhaps, even are.
Criterion’s new to Blu release – at least, in North America is a virtual carbon-copy of Sony’s Germany Blu-ray from 2007 (then, region free). Back in Blu-ray’s infancy I commented on the perplexing nature of Sony’s own marketing; releasing oodles of deep catalog in Europe while simultaneously denying North American audiences the same luxury – lest they feel like paying exorbitant fees to import these discs via Amazon.de/u.k. or some other foreign derivative through a third-party seller. It’s only taken Criterion 11 years to license this one from Sony and frankly, while it’s advertised as a ‘new 4K transfer’ there is virtually NO difference in image quality between these two discs. Criterion’s has a superior bit rate, but this does not bear itself out in the visuals which, for those wondering – looked superb in 2007 and continue to look just fine in 2018.
Herein, we should give very high marks for VP in Charge of Catalog, Grover Crisp’s deep-rooted commitment to ensuring Sony’s catalog came to hi-def looking this immaculate, especially when – at that time – his competition was merely contented to release tired and careworn SD transfers bumped to a 1080p signal. The Age of Innocence is nothing less than impressive in hi-def. This 1080p image is stunning; razor-sharp without untoward edge effects, richly saturated colors and superior amounts of fine detail that pop, exquisite contrast and film grain looking indigenous to its source. 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 through these antechambers is momentarily marred by some age-related artifacts; an oddity indeed, since the rest herein is virtually blemish-free.
The audio is DTS 5.1 and as impressive; yielding an unanticipated richness in its bass. Again, this appears to be the same mastering effort as on the 2007 disc. Criterion predictably fattens the calf with a barrage of extras. The Sony disc had none. Criterion offers 4 new interviews (recorded last year); with Scorsese, Jay Cocks, Dante Ferretti and Gabriella Pescucci. Cumulatively, these total just a little over an hour. We also get, Innocence and Experience; a half hour doc made in 1993 to promote the movie with snippets and sound bites from cast and crew. Finally, a trailer and liner notes from critic, Geoffrey O'Brien. Bottom line: for fans – very highly recommended! For those who shelled out for Sony’s bare bones release from a few years ago – think carefully about spending the extra coin this time around. You are doing it for the extras only – not a remastered Blu-ray viewing experience…just saying!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)