It’s always an event whenever the great Martin Scorsese releases another film as he does with his latest offering Silence. It’s almost as if the whole film world collectively holds its breath in anticipation of what is sure to be another masterpiece from one of cinema’s true masters.
Scorsese’s Silence sees the director once again venture outside his realm for a story of religious conflict set in 17th century Japan. The subject is far from what fans consider to be classic Scorsese storytelling, yet reaffirms the director’s willingness to explore new territory as a filmmaker.
Those who have seen Silence have thunderously sung its praises, which is certainly a world away from the response given to the first time the director tried to branch outside his comfort zone with the 1993 literary period drama The Age of Innocence.
Taking place in early 20th century New York City, The Age of Innocence centers on Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a successful attorney from one of the city’s most prominent families. Newland is happy with his career and with his personal life, which includes an engagement to the lovely, if hopelessly naive, May Welland (Winona Ryder); a member of another high society family. Newland’s future seems set until May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), returns to New York after fleeing from her monstrous husband with the scandalous intent of getting a divorce. Not long after meeting, Newland begins to realize that he’s fallen in love with the much-gossiped about Ellen, who also shares similar feelings, putting him at a most difficult crossroads as he tries to hide the situation from both May and a society which would destroy him if it ever found out.
By the early 90s, Scorsese had long-since been associated with films which offered up stark portraits of New York rooted in violence that was gritty and raw, making this film a TRUE departure. While it may not be a traditional Scorsese film in the vein of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence is nonetheless just as violent as any film the director had made before. The film explores the harsh brutality of upper-class early 20th century New York society with customs, mores and values used as weapons. The world in The Age of Innocence, the way Scorsese sees it in any case, is one where the tiniest whisper, the raising of an eyebrow and a lingering look can lead to the destruction of reputation and instantly brand someone a social outcast. It is a world where very little is forgiven, and almost nothing is excused. Its because of the cold callousness of this world that the romance between Newland and Ellen is all the more powerful. Watching the two take a carriage ride or sneak a quick word with each other to make plans for a later meeting is filled with both suspense at whether their love will be discovered and dread because of how doomed their attraction to each other is.
Greatly anchoring The Age of Innocence is a flawless script, which not only captures the essence of the Edith Wharton novel on which the film is based, but also contains some of the greatest dialogue to be found in both a story of romance AND a period piece. For example, when Ellen, realizing her and Newland’s fate is sealed, says, “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,” are as tragically romantic as they come, while a great many others are seeped in both wit and wisdom. “Is New York such a labyrinth?” Ellen asks at one point. “I thought it was all straight up and down like Fifth Avenue. All the cross streets numbered and big honest labels on everything,” she comments innocently. “Everything is labeled,” replies Newland. “But everybody is not.” Adding to this is the film’s unbelievable production design which is so easy to get lost in with the most careful and precise attention paid to every detail, from the sweeping costumes, to the sumptuous-looking food and the impressive sets. In every way possible and imaginable, Scorsese has brought the world of early 20th century New York to glorious life.
The film’s three stars are almost as responsible for The Age of Innocence’s spellbinding power as Scorsese is. Each role can be considered the film’s most difficult, and the actors inhabiting them expertly step up to the challenge. Day-Lewis brings out Newland’s feeling of true conflict as he finds himself tormented by a love he cannot control while Pfeiffer makes her character the most innocent of the three, beautifully embodying Ellen’s guilt and despair over a love which cannot be and Ryder wonderfully turns May into someone who appears to be a victim, but is actually more perceptive than most would first realize.
While critics for the most part favorably reviewed The Age of Innocence, there was a certain underwhelming feeling which seemed to say that many were not comfortable with the director stepping outside his comfort zone of cinematic violence. Audiences certainly felt that way as proven by the film’s lackluster box office returns. While the movie received a number of accolades, The Age of Innocence was virtually absent at the Oscars, save a for a couple of technical nods as well as nominations for its well-written screenplay and Ryder as Best Supporting Actress.
In many ways, the reception towards The Age of Innocence is a lot like the one Ellen receives. Most Scorsese fans up to that point didn’t know what to make of something so different than what they were used to and so they simply turned away from it. Yet in an era where the director’s oeuvre includes lavish biopics (The Aviator) and stories of childhood (Hugo), The Age of Innocence has unquestionably been placed in a brighter light than when it was first released. Upon attending a recent screening of the film, I was surprised to walk into a nearly-sold out auditorium with people eager to get caught up in the film’s compelling love story and awe-inspiring production qualities. It was more than a fitting tribute to an unquestionably exquisite cinematic work from one of the movie’s most brilliant filmmakers.