Updated: January 3, 2021 3:37:44 pm
Doomed love stories make for piercing pieces of art. Or that is what we have been told and fed through the years via pop culture. Edith Wharton’s sometimes exhausting, but mostly beautiful book The Age of Innocence is an example in case, and so is its film adaptation by the Hollywood legend Martin Scorsese. What makes this proverbial tale of anguished souls so interesting is its treatment by the acclaimed filmmaker, who is mostly known for helming hard-hitting and realistic crime dramas. So it was a complete experiment for both the director and his audience to see Scorsese dabble in the romance genre, and that too period romance. That in 2020, after almost three decades post its release, I am still writing about the film should tell you something about its relevance.
It is the 19th century New York. The incomparable Daniel Day Lewis’ wealthy lawyer Newland Archer is set to tie the knot with beloved socialite May Welland (played wonderfully by the lovely Winona Ryder). However, his eyes and heart begin to wander once May’s stunning cousin Ellen Olenska (a charismatic Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives in the city. Shunned by Archer’s circle and her own beastly partner, Ellen finds comfort in the welcoming arms of Archer. And while their affections for each other cares for no societal boundaries, the society itself has a way of making things uncomfortable for the passionate lovers.
One does wonder, ‘Why would Martin Scorsese ever adapt a classic romantic novel?’ I was certainly a little taken back when I first came to know about it. And even more so when I finally watched the movie. It was so gently told, with painstaking precision and warm feelings. This was not the cold, hard and gritty cinema people often associate with the movie maestro. So what made him take up this project? Thankfully, late film critic Roger Ebert asked him this very question. Scorsese did not consider The Age of Innocence any differently than his other gangster films. The director told Ebert, “What has always stuck in my head is the brutality under the manners. People hide what they mean under the surface of language. In the subculture I was around when I grew up in Little Italy, when somebody was killed, there was a finality to it. It was usually done by the hands of a friend. And in a funny way, it was almost like ritualistic slaughter, a sacrifice. But New York society in the 1870s didn’t have that. It was so cold-blooded. I don’t know which is preferable.”
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The direction and the attention to detail is bewitching. Scorsese is a master at capturing the emotion of both animate and inanimate subjects. Everything seems evocative under his lens, even New York City. But there is one big issue in terms of engagement. Despite the familiar story and the winning performances by the cast, the movie seems endless. And not in a good way. It gets too trapped by the high-level matchmaking and forgets itself and its plot in the middle. It is then that the main leads’ chemistry comes to the rescue. Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer’s skills are at their sharpest and they really make you root for their lost, forbidden love. The spark the two characters feel in each other’s company seems palpable. It reaches out and devours you too, if only momentarily.
You can watch The Age of Innocence on Netflix.
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