On the surface it feels like an odd choice for a Scorsese film
Most of his films are modern, rated R (a hard R usually), they’re about the quote “lower class” or underbelly of society, and they’re violent. The Age of Innocence is different- it is a period piece, from a justifiably canonized work of literary fiction, it’s rated PG, about the aristocracy, and there isn’t a shed of physical violence in the film. However, Scorsese is, first and foremost a stylistic auteur (instead of being a content-driven auteur (like say Stanley Kramer or Oliver Stone who’s works could be put in book form and have a voice—Stone is also a stylistic one as a montagist but I’m getting sidetracked here) and in recent years leading up to 1993’s The Age of Innocence had remade a 1962 thriller (Cape Fear), and told an alternative story of Christ (The Last Temptation of Christ), and given us a sequel to a great 1961 film (The Color of Money). So, I guess an Edith Wharton adaption isn’t that far off in other ways. He’s also done a period-piece musical (New York, New York) so yeah. This is, like most of his work, set in New York and there is a stylistic similarity to the rest of his oeuvre. There’s an unmistakable parallel between this film and Goodfellas and I think they made for a great companion piece to study. This film also has brilliant visual color motif that explicates Scorsese’s 20+ year (at this point in 1993) meditation on sin and guilt. It’s here in red and green with Eden and Hell and Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer.
From opening floral and lace-inspired credits by Elaine and Saul Bass you know you’re in for a visual and aural treat—a feast for the senses—stunning titles accompanied by the luminous Elmer Bernstein score
If you had no idea about film style at all– and just watched for the writing and acting– it’s still a very good film. I think the writing (again adapted aptly from Wharton) and performances (DDL and Pfeiffer in particular are excellent) put it up there with the best works of a Merchant Ivory film (and they made some really great films so that is not an insult). In fact, both Joanne Woodward (does the voice over here and is one of the stars and titular characters in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge) and Daniel Day Lewis (A Room With a View) had recently worked with Merchant Ivory. Scorsese is a master though- and he takes it to another level—or several other levels- transcendent film style.
The opera glasses sequence is a knockout. Scorsese infuses the experience of looking through the glasses with a rapid-montage to simulate the POV. It’s similar to his ingenuity in the “Rubber Biscuit” drunk scene in Mean Streets. He’s just a genius- he says- “how am I going to show this cinematically?” and then invents and executes.
The stage performance sequence remind me of Powell with The Red Shoes (one of Scorsese’s key texts of influence) and the fluid tracking shots (specifically in this world—period, costume-heavy) remind me of Ophuls
The introduction of the Beaufort ballroom is another immaculate cinematic sequence. It is an awe-inspiring 2 ½ minute shot that has to recall the Copacabana shot in Goodfellas and the introduction of the Mafia world at the Bamboo Lounge. Scorsese here is bouncing the camera off the canvases, floral arrangements all over the place. We meet key characters and a different world (insulated, tribal, often cruel)—just like Goodfellas.
Perhaps the greatest single achievement here artistically is the use of color- specifically green for Winona Ryder and red for Pfeiffer. This is an elongated visual cousin to part of perhaps the greatest shot in cinema history- the Copacabana shot- going from the green Eden into the red Hell. It is Scorsese’s torn/conflicted protagonist (not different from Charlie in Mean Streets– there’s obligation and desire) and there’s sin (Pfeiffer in red almost always) and innocence (Ryder almost always shot with trees and plants in the background). Remarkable- beautiful formal/visual achievement.
Iris-in’s in two spots
Heavy dissolves throughout in the editing- very soft. What incredible work here by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker—they truly make the editing here an artform— every edit is specific and interconnected. We fade to red on Pfeiffer— fades to yellow after the roses. The editing by Scorsese has always been inspired by Varda with his triple-edit (used here when Day-Lewis sees a rival’s coat’s initials visiting Pfeiffer) from Cleo From 5 to 7 or the fade to yellow here from Le Bonheur
Overhead shots to share the wealth, opulence and curated Doll-house (pre-Wes Anderson) world- dining fare shots, fine porcelain
Reds in Pfeiffer’s apartment- wallpaper and always a fire. Cuts to Winona in the green garden.
A few critics call this Scorsese’s Barry Lyndon– I’m not entirely sure on that- have to give it more thought- but I do know that this may be his greatest achievement in mise-en-scene. It’s downright painterly- but he Scorsese doesn’t skimp on the camera movement. There are many examples where he can clearly set a frame and let us enjoy it as you would art on the wall at a museum. Dante Ferretti does the production design. He would work with Scorsese often after this (this is their first film together) and before this worked with Fellini and Pasolini. The camera luxuriates in the wealth and care put forth in this world.
As a narrative choice Scorsese has the actors read letters aloud – it’s not the 4th wall breaking end of Goodfellas but still- strong consistency
There are a 1000 small cinematically rich moments in the film—almost too much for one entry-page. A great 360-shot at the dining table like De Palma.
In one impressive scene the screen goes to red behind DDL’s head—it’s at 115 minutes. Another use of the color motif. He’s almost made ill by the sacrifice, the hypocrisy and the cruelty of this inner circle.
Scorsese’s trademark never-resting camera. Ebert- “Scorsese is known for his restless camera; he rarely allows a static shot. But here you will have the impression of grace and stateliness in his visual style, and only on a second viewing will you realize the subtlety with which his camera does, indeed, incessantly move, insinuating
I’ve had it as a Must-See film for years but I think I’m ready to push it to the Masterpiece level
Welcome, my friend, to the right side of history. Lovely review.
@Matt Harris — thanks for the comment. haha I figured you’d have something to say on this one. You were correct here— I’m glad it didn’t take any longer for me to revisit and reconsider- what a marvelous film
Hi. Great movie. Pfeiffer is a top 100 actress !
@KidCharlemagne— thanks for the comment here. Pfeiffer is a good actress. Here’s my list of her archiveable films. Do you think there’s a year where she gives one of the best female performances? Maybe it is 1993 and 1988 and she should warrant a l spot on the back half of the top 100 actresses of all-time. Talia Shire is my current #100. I think you make a good point here- I’d probably take Pfeiffer’s 1988 and 1993 over Shire’s work in “Rocky” and “The Godfather” trilogy
1988- Dangerous Liaisons
1988- Married To the Mob
1990- The Russia House
1993- The Age of Innocence
2001- I Am Sam
1972- The Godfather
1974- The Godfather Part II
1990- The Godfather Part III
2004- I Heart Huckabees
Thks for the reply.
Recommend maybe (need another watch) :
Love Field (1992)
Baker Boys (1989)
Murder on the Orient-Express (2017)
Top 10 of the year :
Batman Returns (1992) – One of the best Burton Movies (with Edward & Ed Wood,Prime Burton 1990-1994).
Best female performance of the year ?
1988 & 1993 only yes (Dangerous Liaisons/Age of Innocence).
@KidCharlemagne — thanks again– I definitely want to revisit “Batman Returns”. It’s been ages.
This movie is exactly why I love cinema so much. Brilliant acting, great story and so incredibly emotional. There are only a handful of films where I can ‘feel’ the cinematography. The tree of life and 2001 would be great examples. I could turn of the volume and still feel the emotion that Scorsese was trying to convey. Each frame is gorgeous to look at and there’s a sense of longing and desire in every shot.
I disagree with those who say this isnt a Scorsese film. It definitely is. It has most of his trademarks. Its violent(not physically. But words hurt more than actions. Scorsese called this his most violent film. I agree), the movie is in New York, it has narration(something scorsese is famous for). It introduces the audience and the main character by a tracking shot(also used in goodfellas) and it has catholic sin symbols in the film. At the end of the movie the main character is hurt and alone and realises that it’s his fault he is alone(“I’m old fashioned”) (Jake in raging bull). This movie is very emotional and very stylish/artistic. You should rewatch it. In a few years this will be recognized as one of Scorsese’s best films. It may not have gangsters nd physical violence but in many ways it’s the most Scorsese-esque film ever. Definitely one of the greatest movies of alltime(in my opinion).
@Azman!! Very well said. Those people that say this isn’t a “Scorsese film” are wrong– I agree with you. They are strictly talking about genre. This makes a great pairing with Goodfellas actually in many ways.
Hey, I’m planning to rewatch one the films from 90s . Which one would you recommend more THE AGE OF INNOCENCE or UNFORGIVEN ? Which one’s better?
@M*A*S*H- For years I would’ve said Unforgiven– but after my most recent viewing of Scorsese’s film, I’m not so sure anymore. I think they’re very close.
Unforgiven and Age of Innocence are the best of their respective years IMO. I’d probably go with Unforgiven as it’s Clint’s best film that he directed. Hackman in Unforgiven is one of the best villains ever
Who do you think gives the best performance in the movie? Daniel Day-Lewis is of course talented to an unimaginable degree, and he portrays the lead character impeccably, but I don’t think it would be inaccurate to claim that Michelle Pfeiffer’s acting is even better than his here. I would undoubtedly give the edge to Pfeiffer when comparing her performance to Winona Ryder’s (who received an Oscar nomination despite the Academy honoring neither Day-Lewis nor Pfeiffer). I think May is made a less complex and engaging character than Ellen on purpose to emphasize Newland’s reasons for feeling more connection with Ellen. Nonetheless, Pfeiffer’s character is possibly the best written, costumed, and acted character in the film.
@Graham- Sorry for jumping in your convo.
Pfeiffer has half the screen time of DDL but if we talk about thier performances then I believe that they are equals. I have no problem if someone says that Pfeiffer was better. Ryder for sure is weak.
I think Scorsese’s choices here with gender and class are interesting. As you mention on the page, most of his films are about systems such as the boxing and the mafia in the perceived “lower levels” of society while this one focuses exclusively on the highest class of aristocracy. The lifestyles and organizations in his other films are heavily male-dominated , but I feel that women hold quite a lot of the power in the society of The Age of Innocence, though the dangers of powerful men such as Julius Beaufort are also included. Mrs. Mingott essentially holds more authority than any man in the story. Edith Wharton’s writing is certainly the reason for these flipped gender dynamics, but it’s enlightening to see Scorsese looking at the world in a different way, even if it’s not what he’s accustomed to directing.
Just watched this all the way through for the first time, in the past trying to watch it I’d get bored at the beginning and zone out/turn it off (same thing with lawrence of arabia which was a mistake too). The cinematography in Age of Innocence is ridiculous. Not sure if I’d put it above or below Casino now as his 2nd best 90’s film. MS or MP, no doubt about it. His best film that doesnt have de niro/dicaprio.
@Dylan- Very nice to hear- thanks for sharing this Dylan
Masterpiece. For me still his best post Raging Bull film.