Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Period Piece Challenge: The Age of Innocence Movie Review

(Meh and Not So Much)
Judging solely by the movie poster (either version), I can't say that I was really expecting to enjoy this film.  Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder in a period piece produced in 1993?  I cringed a little.  Don't get me wrong.  There were a couple of elements that gave me hope; their names were Daniel Day Lewis and Martin Scorsese.  And I should have given each of these gentlemen far more credit for their movie-making talents.  Scorsese brought a fresh and highly literal perspective to the film and, well, Daniel Day Lewis brought himself and there is really nothing more that I need.  So in the end I was very pleasantly surprised by the film as a whole.  It was beautifully costumed and shot, incredibly true to the book, and a great way to experience excellent characters that those who may not be fans of Edith Wharton's might have otherwise missed.

Let's Talk About Cinematography (and costumes and sets . . . )
I really cannot say enough about this aspect of the film.  The book was so meticulous in its descriptions of the over-the-top decadent lifestyle of these wealthy New Yorkers and Scorsese took it to heart.  I adored the many close-ups of the paintings displayed in homes such as Beaufort's and Archer's.  Not only did Wharton put a great deal of emphasis on the presence of fine art in the lives of her characters, Scorsese uses expertly timed and chosen panning shots of artwork to illustrate different parts of the story in the film.  BRILLIANT! 

Let's not forget about the costumes: AMAZING!  And historically accurate, corsets and all!  What, you thought those 20 inch waists were natural?  Nope; the actresses had to put oxygen on hold so they could lace up for most scenes.  The men have it so easy in their vests, smoking jackets and adorable derbies.  I could gush for an entire post over the costumes but I will finish up with a final fan-flail over May Welland's wedding dress (and the scene depicting her wedding shoot in general).  The white lace, tiered skirt and drop-shoulder collar were beautifully done.  I also really liked her archer outfit.  Okay, I am done.  Sorry!
(Bows and Bustles Galore)
The scenery and sets were breathtaking.  No detail was forgotten.  From the lamps on the drawing room tables to the bookcases, armchairs and dining room place settings.  The beautiful gigantic mansions with their high ceilings, dark wood, interior plants, marble fireplaces, richly papered walls; oh it was all so very Victorian.  I must say, nicely done.  The film, like the book, represented the entire age, not just the characters within it.  Due time and attention was paid to the cutting of cigars and the sipping of digestifs after the five course meals.
(Renoir or Serat anyone?)
Not only were details like pottery and parasols not overlooked, somehow the filmmakers managed to stage each scene as if it were to be painted.  I was constantly reminded of Renoir and that, dear readers, is never a bad thing.  The scene where Newland visits the Countess Olenska in the garden in Boston is especially reminiscent of his paintings with a very dejeuner-sur-l'herbe feel about the boats on the canal and of course the parasols.
Decent Acting
I was fairly surprised at how believable the actors were able to make the story.  I have to admit that I was totally sucked in after the first 5 minutes.  Granted, the amazing costumes and scenery didn't hurt, but the actors themselves did a commendable job of portraying these rather stifled and burdened characters.

Winona Ryder has pretty much been dead to me since Little Women.  I am usually unimpressed.  However, I think she might have been (SHOCK) well cast for this part.  She plays the embodiment of innocence with her white dresses, big eyes and sweet smile.  She speaks up only when she is forced to and she is only required to play a one-dimensional, pretty character.  She pulls it off.  I won't say that she doesn't annoy me a bit as an actress, but May annoys me in the book so it kind of worked.
(The de-gloving.  I love it!)
Michelle Pfeiffer was NOT who I pictured when envisioning my personal movie-version in my head.  Don't get me wrong, I have loved Michelle Pfeiffer in certain roles (Cat Woman being one of them, so take this for what it's worth), but as the mysterious and alluring Countess Ellen Olenska, I don't know.  I was hoping for much more chemistry between Olenska and Newland and I don't think Pfeiffer delivered (minus the de-gloving scene in the carriage!).  Sure there was tons of proximity and even a few stolen touches, but I could never reconcile her face and her voice with my mental picture of the Countess.  So maybe it was me or maybe I just really needed Michelle Pfeiffer to be prettier.
(Well Hellooo, Mr. Archer)
Daniel Day Lewis can do no wrong.  I actually really enjoyed seeing him play Newland Archer.  Newland is a very emotional man with big ideas who is extremely concerned with propriety and upholding social customs.  The last time I saw Daniel Day Lewis in 1870s New York was in Gangs of New York and he was playing a . . . shall we say, very different sort of character.  Interestingly enough, Gangs of New York was also directed by Scorsese.  I highly recommend both of these films as they offer a glimpse of completely opposite versions of the same city during the same period in history.  Anyway, Day Lewis plays Newland brilliantly.  He gives him a dark and serious air while also projecting the right amount of pent-up frustration over the lack of control he has over his life.  You can see the regrets wearing on him and he plays the final scene outside of Countess Olenska's Paris apartment perfectly.  He makes you understand why he can't possibly climb those stairs, no matter how much you need him to.
("Just tell her I'm old-fashioned")
Awkward Interactions
While I did enjoy the movie, there were a couple of things that were not my favorite.  First, the pace was slightly snail-like.  I realize the book moves slowly and that the movie was almost word-for-word from the book.  And while I appreciate that IMMENSELY, it did get a bit sleepy at times.  This next complaint was just a little bit weird.  I am not really all that up on Victorian customs, especially customs involving the show of affection, but I am sorry, I can't be the only one to have noticed the inordinate amount of lap hugging, lap snuggling, and head patting that occurred in this movie (and maybe in the 1870s) on a regular basis.  Unabashed use of PROXIMITY and hand-holding?  Hot and most certainly socially acceptable.  Heads buried in flounced skirts and evening jackets?  A bit awkward to say the least.
(I'm just . . . not sure how to react to this)
All-in-all, I really liked this one.  Scorsese is a genius and that is not hard to see. I  really appreciated his frank approach to the movie.  He didn't try to change anything, he just wanted the book to play out on screen.  And it does so beautifully.  So the next time you are in the need of a historically accurate Victorian upper-crust fix, I suggest you watch The Age of Innocence.  Because whatever your feelings for Edith Wharton (yes, I am talking to you, Sally), who can say no to Daniel Day Lewis?


  1. You got me! I think my love for Daniel Day Lewis ("ON MY CHALLENGE-!!!!" sorry, I always see him brandishing butchers' knives whenever I think of him) just might beat out my dislike for Edith Wharton and I'll be caving and watching this one sometime soon... Also because I'm powerless against pretty costumes.

  2. I just don't know that I can force myself to watch this, and I'll admit, I'm judging based on those horrid movie posters (although, how could Winona make you not want to watch this? HELLO, LITTLE WOMEN!). I'm not the hugest Wharton fan either, but I guess if you can make it through then maybe I can as well? Although, Daniel will never be anything Hawkeye for me. Speaking of, how have we NEVER MENTION THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS ON HERE? My goodness the FEELINGS. I'm not sure FEELINGS is even a strong enough word for it, actually.

    1. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?! Mariah. I watched The Last of the Mohicans for the first time ever this year (judge away) and I had such high expectations... IT WAS SO CHEESY AND NOT IN A GOOD WAY!!!!! There I said it.

    2. THIS IS ME UPPING YOUR WHAAAAAT WITH A SERIOUSLY?!?!??!?! I guess maybe I just have a special place for it in my heart? Or I dunno. I just think it's pretty effing fabulous. We'll have to agree to disagree on this one!