Well, Martin Scorsese finally won his Oscar. Should have been for The Departed? Maybe not, but he damned well deserved it.
In honor of his win, I read a brilliant review in the New York Times for the most un-Scorsese of Scorsese’s movies, Age of Innocence. But maybe it wasn’t so far from his realm. After all, Scorsese called it his “most violent film”…
Passion, especially repressed passion, has often been Mr. Scorsese’s subject. And the organized suppression of unruly desire is the villain blighting “The Age of Innocence.” Its hero, Newland Archer (played in the film by Daniel Day-Lewis), is engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), the angelic blank slate of a girl his society wants him to marry. Inconveniently, Newland falls in love with Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), an interesting, independent woman with a complicated romantic past and a shaky position in Newland’s rigidly codified tribe — a tribe that smoothly closes ranks to keep the lovers apart. (What first draws Newland to the Countess is her irreverent honesty about the local and imported aristocracy — an irreverence that, as Ms. Pfeiffer points out, “comes out of innocence on her part. Ellen has no idea how provocative she’s being.”)
What attracted Martin Scorsese to the novel, which he was first given by the film critic and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks, was, he said, “that element of repressed emotion, forced restraint and obsession.”
“I was most interested in how people in a situation like that would be happy just to be together in the same room at a dinner party. Just one look would keep them alive for another year. It’s very different from today, when rational adults can talk things over and try to change their lives. For Newland to have changed his life would have destroyed part of a culture.”
It is such a sad and depressing film. A story of “what could have been” and “if only”… I still remember the last scene of the film with Daniel Day-Lewis on the street in Paris… loss, resignation, and a feeling of helplessness. Based on a book by Edith Wharton (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921), the film won an Oscar for Costume Design and Winona Ryder was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The film was clearly overlooked and under-appreciated. It deserved much more – maybe it was just too different from what one had come to expect from Scorsese?
I’ll leave you with the closing paragraph of the review, which so aptly captures why the book and the film are classics –
One measure of Edith Wharton’s greatness is that — as in all great fiction — so little of her work seems dated. But the more accurate gauge is our discovery that “The Age of Innocence” has changed our sense of the world. Putting down the novel, leaving the film, we’re newly sensitized to the tribal rituals beneath the social forms we’d taken for granted. And our vision of people and of the roles they play has been permanently altered. We look around a dinner party and just for a moment glimpse them — May Welland, Ellen Olenska, the unfortunate Newland Archer — hauntedly staring out at us from the flushed, happy faces of our friends.