Classic Film | Issue 9
The Age of Innocence
The Age of Innocence hit me like no other film ever has. My heart was racing for the majority of its 138 minutes; after it finished I paced the room trying to calm down, shaking the tingles from my fingers. Itís the only film to ever make me, Mr Emotionally Straitjacketed Middle Class White Guy, cry (well, except for Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, but I was 4 at the time). Itís one of the best things Iíve seen in my life.
It shouldnít even exist, purely by virtue of the fact that itís a costume drama directed by Martin Scorcese. But itís possibly his most intense and brutal film Ė more so even than Raging Bull (the merits of which have always escaped me) or Taxi Driver. The unrelenting force of the film comes not through Scorceseís usual methods (i.e. the imminent possibility of someone getting shot in the face), but through powerful subtext and the exquisite, perfectly weighted performances from the three leads.
The Oscar-nominated art design and Oscar-winning costumes are extraordinary. Yet they also reflect the rigid social norms that imprison the main character, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis). In the world of 1870s New York, a free-thinker like the Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a source of boundless fascination, and the mere removal of a glove is a highly erotic act. Perfectly mannered discourse crackles with hidden tension; nobody says what they mean, even if they appear to. Indeed, the true meaning of many conversations Ė particularly those between Archer and his fiancťe May Welland (Winona Ryder) Ė only becomes apparent much later on. The possibility of love and freedom with the countess is forever dangled tantalisingly before Archer, but he never manages to grasp it.
The film is based on a 1920 book of same name. The title is, of course, intentionally ironic. Nobody in this film is innocent, least of all those who appear to be, and the film alleges that love canít conquer all, that people lack free will, and that society shuns the different. This is all reflected in the very last scene, a piece of Scorcese brilliance that wraps up the film beautifully, but crushingly.