Movie Review 2008 #22: The Age of Innocence

Martin Scorsese’s first attempt at an “Oscar bait” period epic, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder as upper crust socialites in 1870’s New York City.

Gorgeously filmed, wonderfully acted and subtle in the way that many of his other films are Gross, The Age of Innocence is a very atypical picture for Scorsese. There are no action scenes, no violence, nothing of the sort. Its a slow period picture.
With the occasional voiceover to help as a scorecard, the Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer, successful lawyer and fiancee of Ryder’s May Welland. All is peaceful in their genteel world, until the arrival of Pfeiffer’s Duchess Ellen Orlenska, estranged American wife of a Polish Duke, now back in New York and seeking to carve a new life. Unaware of just how much she is flouting social conventions, its not until Archer’s intervention that Ellen has a chance at happiness…
But what about Archer’s happiness? And May’s?
Before he tore up the screen in Gangs of New York, Lewis provides an excellent center for this trio of actors. I have no idea how he managed to avoid getting a nomination at the very least…although a check of the records show that he was nominated (and lost) for a different picture that year–for In the Name of the Father. Ryder’s role shows hidden depths to the character, and Pfeiffer is luminous and complex. There are plenty of smaller roles for actors like Sian Phillips and Jonathan Pryce as well. The movie relies heavily on all of these performances. The movie could easily have been overwrought, or underdone, or ponderous if the performances were not pitch perfect.
And the cinematography is excellent, too. We buy into the 1870’s view of New York (and a few other locations) completely and utterly.
The Age of Innocence was not nominated for any major awards like it clearly was designed to do, save for a Best Supporting Actress for Ryder (she lost to Anna Paquin for The Piano). Still, its an enjoyable movie and an excellent part of the director’s body of work. I enjoyed it.