Project 1993: "The Age of Innocence"

Sunday, April 10, 2011

*Project 1993 is a series of posts where I review films from the year 1993. I do movies from various genres and mostly ones that really meant something to me. Here's a link to all the articles from the project.

For my first movie in 'Project 1993', I'm reviewing 'The Age of Innocence'.

The story about the perfect love that can never be
This movie was the turning point when I defined my admiration for period pieces. It was also one of the few where, afterwards, I just sat quietly while trying to comprehend the sheer perfection of it. And ultimately, I believe this film made me realize I would be a Pfan forever.
‘The Age of Innocence’ is a 1993 film directed by the great Martin Scorsese, adapted from the novel by the same name by Edith Warton. The story includes the talents of Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder and is set in New York’s 1870s. With its intelligence, ambiguity and emotion; this is a movie you won’t soon forget.
The plot evolves around Newland Archer, a well-respected lawyer from the upper class of New York’s society. He is set to marry the beautiful and amiable May Welland. Considering their fortunes, social statues and affectionate feelings towards each other, they are a perfect match.
Everything seems to be going according to plan until May’s estranged cousin, Ellen Olenska, comes back to town and changes their lives irreversibly. To fully explain Countess Olenska’s character would be impossible. She’s independent, smart, blunt and to everyone’s dismay; distinctive. She breaks high society’s golden rules without even taking notice and aristocracy highly disapproves of her unconventional behavior.
Archer, thinking he has found the perfect wife in May and her conventional ways, is unaware of the fact that Ellen is everything he never knew he wanted. Being brought up in New York’s elite atmosphere and therefore only being able to recognize one kind of woman, Archer is intrigued by the uniqueness that is Ellen Olenska.
Somewhere between Ellen considering a divorce that could turn out terribly and Archer making wedding plans with May, they fall in love.
But if there’s one thing to know about that time and place, it’s that a good name was everything and scandals were considered worse than death. Newland Archer faces an impossible choice: pick the woman he truly loves and be the cause of shame on both his and her family or stay intact and enter a passionless marriage. Seeing as it’s probably the worst possible time to fall in love with each other, Ellen and Newland can’t act on their feelings.
This certainly accounts for a few heart-wrenching moments. Ellen and Newland meet again several times after they’ve acknowledged their feeling for one another, and knowing they should be together, it’s hard to watch them distancing from each other. Newland having a moral duty, they both realize the right thing to do is not to do anything. But even though they try to ignore their feelings, they’ve both perpetually marked the path of the other.

May Welland is played wonderfully by Winona Ryder. The naïve, innocent, and somewhat dull characteristics of a properly brought-up young woman are brought out subtle, but determined. Later, however, we come to know that May was much brighter than we gave her credit for.
Newland Archer is portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s perfect as the man who has to choose between his duty and his heart. Before Ellen, he was just an ordinary man; it was her who made him question the society he belonged to and it was her who showed him what life was really about and what it could be.

Michelle Pfeiffer gives Countess Olenska the fire that is required in her character. Even if it’s just the eyes, you can tell that she distinguishes herself from the rest. She fins the perfect balance between sophistication and purity. It’s exactly that which made me fall in love with her persona. But aside from her extraordinary character, she still has a traditional feel of honor and family. Her strength keeps her from her deepest, most treasured, yet impossible desire.
While the characters are indeed reserved, this merely adds to the repressed passions that lie just below the surface.
One of the scenes that never fails to move me is when Archer and Ellen sit next to each other in the carriage and Newland strips her of her glove. It’s one of the most sensual, non-sexual moments I’ve ever seen. It’s also the moment that describes their love best: immense, aching and ever so gentle.
The wise use of music, costumes and cinematography all contribute to the excellence of the movie. In one of my favorite sequences, Ellen receives a bouquet of yellow roses; while she arranges them, the camera circles around her and when it stops she looks almost straight in the camera. It’s really amazing how a few seconds can do so much with the viewer. Though I suppose the movie starts somewhat slow, you’ll get sucked into the story shortly. Everyone who enjoys period pieces, dramatic romance and an intelligent plot with world-class actors should see this movie.
The ending is not the one we wanted to see, but it’s much more real than that. The first time I saw this movie, I just sat in awe while the end credits were rolling. I definitely didn’t expect the ending, but looking back, only that conclusion could’ve had that particular effect on me. It tells us that no matter how strong a love once was; sometimes it’s better to keep the memories strong rather than try to fix the broken pieces.
Favorite quotes:

You couldn't be happy if it meant being cruel. If we act any other way I'll be making you act against what I love in you most. And I can't go back to that way of thinking. Don't you see? I can't love you unless I give you up.
Newland: You gave me my first glimpse of a real life. Then you asked me to go on with a false one. No one can endure that.

Ellen: I'm enduring it.


Anonymous said...

The Age Of Innocence is a sumptuous delight that gets better everytime I watch it!
Normally I'm not a fan of period dramas but I'll make an exception when they are as good as this film.
You make some very pertinent observations Chelsea, especially about the glove scene and the ending... it's a very rare film that can have that effect on a viewer.
Thanks for a beautifully written review, I look forward to reading many more in the future.

Chelsea said...

Thanks Paul :)
The Age of Innocence is like a rare gem in a world full of plain rocks. It will remain among my all-time favorites forever.
You're welcome and I hope I'll live up to that!

Jack L said...

I didn't expect to like this one much, but as I was going through a big Scorsese phase I watched it and was very impressed. Definitely a very well made and well acted film with some very emotional scenes...
Such a shame this film is so overlooked.

Great review Chelsea!

Anonymous said...

I've just bought my mother The Age Of Innocence on DVD Chelsea. She's a big fan of period films but she's never seen this one and I don't think she's ever seen a Michelle Pfeiffer pfilm.
As she's on her own at the moment I'm going to go round and watch it with her this weekend and then I'll probably let her read this post too, I'm sure she'll enjoy it!

Chelsea said...

That's great Paul! I'd love to have her read my review :D
Never seen a Pfilm AND loves period pieces: she's in for a real treat! Be sure to let me know what she thinks.

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