Not in my Wheelhouse: The Age of Innocence
Welcome to “Not in My Wheelhouse,” a weekly column in which one of our staff members recommends a movie to another that is outside of their cinematic comfort zone! See other entries in the series here.
The Age of Innocence (1993). Directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, based on the novel by Edith Wharton, Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, and the guy should played Alfred in the Michael Keaton Batman movies (Michael Gough). Recommended by Gary Kramer.
How Far Outside My Wheelhouse is The Age of Innocence?
Well, anyone who knows me knows that I will watch just about anything, and I will typically find a reason love whatever that anything is. So the concept of “out of my wheelhouse” is somewhat out of my wheelhouse itself. The simple act of watching a movie is more than enough to bring me delight, genre be damned. That said, if I don’t see period dramas or animated films in the theater, I typically don’t see them at all. There’s just something difficult about pushing play on Maurice or Cars 2 when I’m a literal click away from Robocop at all times. But passively avoid them as I might, I’m usually glad when I put in the time with either genre. Gary was smart to pick The Age of Innocence, as it’s Scorsese’s name which gets me through the door. There are still a handful of films in his canon which I haven’t seen, and if not for this project, Innocence would certainly have been the last on my list.
Seeing as how this is Scorsese, I figured that no matter what I thought of the film as a an entertainment, I’d at least be pleased to watch the craft on display. D-Day is always a powerhouse, and Michelle Pfeiffer is a supreme being made of pure goodness and talent sent from on high to entertain humankind, so I knew I’d be engaged at the very least. It’s just that short of American football, few things cause my attention span to derp out than what I’ll call “high society shit.” I don’t have much by way of manners myself (full disclosure, I forced a fart during the typing of that sentence just so I could type this sentence — it smells), and the design of 1870s New York isn’t one which captures my imagination. I guess I expected to consume this movie rather than enjoy it. It’s homework, but it’s fun homework that you don’t mind doing.
As close to a masterpiece as any of Marty’s considerable filmography. Just about every stereotype I half-expected going in was subverted, making me wonder if the baggage I brought into things was even based in truth to begin with. When dealing in period fare, there’s an allowance for melodrama afforded by the near parodic nature of hoity-toity design (see Gosford Park or The Favourite for examples of it being played for comedy), but Innocence never takes the opportunity. Never leans on that crutch. Perhaps it’s a compliment to the source material that the characters are motivated in ways that feel true to their situations. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where marriages are arranged for social status, nor could I ever comprehend the pressures of considering image at all times, but Innocence got me there pretty quickly. Usually, this is depicted as a rogue element in an oppressor/oppressed relationship, where a uncommonly modern person is railing against the norms of the age. While this isn’t not that, it certainly feels like a fresher take on the paradigm. On the one hand, the hierarchical propriety on display isn’t framed as a bad thing. As backwards as it seems now, it all makes sense in the world of the film. The system works to keep high the image of everyone within it, while also protecting the collective wealth.
When Newland Archer (Day-Lewis) and Countess Ellen (Pfeiffer) begin stepping out on their respective relationships, it’s not necessarily done in defiance of the system, but rather in recognition of the minute ways by which the other one does not abide by said system. Newland sees in Ellen an agency not afforded to the younger women in his world, least so his wife May (Ryder). In Newland, Ellen sees a man slightly less beholden to “the rules” as anyone she knows. The thing is, neither seeks to upend their lives in order to pursue the other. All things considered, they both have it pretty damn great. Why fuck up a good thing?
It’s in the end of the film that this thoughtful and engaging drama escalated into something special for me. I shan’t spoil it, but where it lands thematically — the revelations experienced by Newland Archer (pay attention to the final conversation he has with his son), cause a rearview of the preceding film to take a different flavor entirely. The actions of May will be the focus of my second viewing for sure, and I suspect they will highlight nuance in Ryder’s performance that I most certainly missed.
Plot/story ideas aside, The Age of Innocence is a technical marvel. The camera almost never stops moving, but thanks to the supreme editing prowess of the great Thelma Schoonmaker (kudos to Jill for putting her name into my brain as one to honor), the entire film moves with a fluid energy that expands the visual scope of every shot. Not a grain of wood in the tiniest bit of moulding feels accidental. Not a clothing fiber nor a bubble of caviar is misplaced, and we get to see all of it. Even the establishing shots of each location are marvelous (“Schoonmaker’s Painters Supply Store” reads one building’s Easter egg of a facade). The true money shot comes in the form of a sunset behind a sailboat behind a lighthouse. You’ll know it as it happens. It appears to be a mix of natural setting and painted backdrop, but I cant be sure.
Finally, it should be noted that much of this was filmed in Philadelphia, which is always good for a few bonus points even if there are no real landmarks of note (although I did recognize the interior of The Academy of Music).
This is one of the less talked about Scorsese films, but I hope that changes. Being over 25 years old, it’s due for a revisit from those who have seen it before, as well as to be discovered by a fresh audience. Folks who loved Phantom Thread should absolutely check it out, as should fans of impeccable film craft. Personally, I feel thoroughly reminded that stereotypes only ever feature, at most, the lightest shades of truth. Why did I ignore this movie for so long? Because I thought I knew what I was getting. I thought wrong. To repurpose a cynical Newland Archer quote about the mystery of human behavior into a hopeful one about avoiding assumptions:
“Everything is labeled, but everybody is not.”
Passing the Baton
Catherine indicated that she isn’t big on Westerns. I, too was disinterested in the genre for much of my life, but only until I grew to understand how much variety can exist within the parameters of a “cowboy movie.” To illustrate just how off-kilter and varied the genre can be, I assign Slow West, the dreamy indie western written and directed by John Maclean of The Beta Band.