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What To Watch: Forbidden Love in ‘The Age Of Innocence’ (1993)

A classic romantic drama starring Daniel Day-Lewis is what to watch.

The Age of Innocence is a 1993 romantic drama about nineteenth-century New York high society, where a young lawyer falls in love with a woman separated from her husband, while he is engaged to the woman’s cousin.

I don’t know about you but give me a period film and I get sucked right in. The costumes, the way people talk, the drama … it all makes for great entertainment, and while there are many that satisfy, I have a soft spot for The Age of Innocence, a classic film adaptation of the book of the same name by Edith Wharton, which is also highly-recommended. It could also be my unwavering adoration for Michelle Pfeiffer, but that’s only part of it. The scathing social commentary, tragic love story, and sumptuous sets make this a movie that can’t be missed.

THE STORY: Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film is set in late 1870s New York City, in posh upper class society. We meet Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a liberal man with conflicting feelings about the times he lives in but who holds them deep inside. He is announcing his engagement to the very respectable young lady, May Welland (Winona Ryder), a naive and sheltered girl of a wealthy family. It’s a bit presumptuous though when the beautiful American heiress Countess Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer) returns to the United States after a failing marriage in Europe and stirs the pot per se. While initially shunned by high society, May’s family stands by her and she is soon welcomed again, though her attitudes toward the pomp and circumstance of life in the top rungs of society come to delight Newland, who grows disappointed in May’s lack of growth and individuality. He has fallen in love with Olenska but the rigid rules of the world he lives in prohibits his saying so and he finds himself in torture over the choices he’s made and the trappings that bind him, but remains, at great personal burden, a loyal man. Mostly.

The Age of Innocence
The Age of Innocence, 1993 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: This is a gorgeous film. Scorsese captures with great detail the era extraordinarily well, the city and the homes, the great halls and elegant rooms just spewing over with character. It pulses with style and there’s a real majesty to the look and feel. Pay attention to the little things if you can, the ornaments and decorations stuffed in all the corners of every frame. Scorsese’s direction and Gabriella Pescucci‘s Oscar-winning costumes are truly terrific whether you’re a fan of the genre or not.

That all aside, what will keep you most engaged though is the sensational dialogue with Jay Cocks‘ screenplay preserving much of the novel’s bite and delivered by some real masters, most especially Day-Lewis. Talk about tragedy, this is a harrowing character study and Day-Lewis is mesmerizing to watch, though to be sure, his equal is Pfeiffer. She’s great in these period films and gives the roles such measured grace and presence.

The Age of Innocence
The Age of Innocence, 1993 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

Lastly, I don’t go for narration much, finding it a weak and lazy way to offer exposition, however, The Age of Innocence does something different with it, having the irreplaceable Joanne Woodward comment on the film as it gathers steam, like a tour guide, detailing for us key moments in the story. It’s exquisitely done.

A GREAT MOMENT: There are a number of sensational moments in The Age of Innocence, a film that Scorsese himself describes as his ‘most violent film’ despite not a single gunshot in the movie. That’s probably most true in this devastating moment when Archer confesses his real feelings for Olenska.

The Age of Innocence
The Age of Innocence, 1993 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

In a drawing room, the two meet, this after he has already convinced her to remain married, despite her unhappiness and her decision to step aside so that May can have her husband. When Archer breaks and reveals that is it her he truly loves, that he longs to be married to her, the confrontation and exposure is raw and heartbreaking. “Nothing’s done that can’t be undone,” he pleads, holding her in his arms. Her reply is crushing.

THE TALLY: The Age of Innocence is unlike most anything Scorsese is famous for and while the film barely broke even at the Box Office, it was well-received by critics and has become one of the most well-respected in the genre. Dialogue-heavy it features outstanding performances and a beautiful score by Elmer Bernstein. Do yourself a favor and try something different. This is loaded with rewards. It’s what to watch.