It’s New York in the 1870s, and Daniel Day-Lewis is engaged to Winona Ryder but he isn’t happy and wants Michelle Pfeiffer instead. Right there I’m really not sure if I’m going to want to sympathise with such a lucky bastard. But in all seriousness, Ryder’s character is too conformist and Pfeiffer’s represents the break with society, and a more passionate side of life that he yearns for. Yes it’s one of those heartbreaking tales where society dominates our own behaviour, killing our souls.
The costumes and art direction steal the show on this one (costumes won the Oscar, art direction was nominated). Scorsese’s direction is much more subtle than usual, gracefully panning and swooning through rooms with the socialite upper class characters he follows. It’s also worth pointing out Saul Bass’ opening with all of the flowering imagery.
But is this story more than just Victorian aesthetics? Well yes. The parallels with today can be seen in how repressive our society can still be, even though we have loosened up over the years (although there’s more loosening up to go). It’s a little obvious really in both its intentions and also in where it will end up. But it’s still something that is well crafted and well told.
I can’t say I was a fan of the narrator thought – it kills the moment, and gives away far too much information about the characters’ backgrounds that I would have preferred left ambiguous and brought to our attention through action. The biggest surprise for me was the fact that Scorsese managed a tale of forbidden love and came away with a U certificate!
While we are accustomed to seeing Day-Lewis play a period costume goody- two-shoes toff of this era, it’s good to see Michelle Pfeiffer returning to the period costume drama after the success of Dangerous Liaisons.
The film itself has many a youthful face, fresh to the Hollywood machine at the time. Winona Ryder was well on her way up (and perhaps this film made her think that period dramas were the way to go – whoops!); Richard E Grant had also made a couple of Hollywood appearances by this stage (and his book WITH NAILS details some of the calamities along the way); and even Robert Sean Leonard pops up in a small role. He and Ethan Hawke got the attention of critics when they did Dead Poets Society. Nowadays Leonard just looks like Jim Carrey’s bushy eyebrowed cousin.
The Age of Innocence had lot of attention as it was coming out, but managed to pull back box office numbers just shy of its $34 million budget. It has since drifted into the background of Scorsese’s canon, yet remains a critic’s favourite. Hopefully when something similar comes round to grab our attention again, people will revisit this one.