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Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Category: Reviews

The Age of Innocence Based on the Pulitzer-winning novel of 1920 by Edith Wharton, the film opens with the scene of a musical play at an elegant concert hall in New York in the 1870s. Dazzling jewelry, quaint dress accessories, and all the neatness of manners charm the eye of the beholder with the taste of a social class that defines the standards for success and refinement. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is part of this happy picture: he, an affluent young lawyer, is engaged to the pretty and young May Welland (Winona Ryder), his social peer, and all is prefect; but for a moment, that is until May’s cousin Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) walks in, alone and dressed by her own choice. Eyes follow her, and as Newland gets to socialize with the lady, his clear view of society, family, and marriage is clouded with doubt and questioning of status quo.

Ellen is married to a European count (not appearing in person, in the book or the film) whom she can’t put up with anymore, and her return to New York to her family forebodes the scandalous ‘D word’, the one more repulsive than death in ‘respectable families’ in that period of time. By getting a divorce from the abusive count, Ellen means to win her the right to live independently, regardless of how the decision to exercise her will has already turned her family against her. Before long, Newland and Ellen find themselves in love with each other. Will they take the heart to break loose from the tether of social obligations is the central element of interest in the plot.

It’s surely a lot more than divorce and love which keeps The Age of Innocence alive. The film, which stays incredibly true to the book—scene by scene with minimal alteration of the original dialogue—is dangerously critical of the insensitivity toward and disregard for nonconformists. As perceptible of other works of Wharton, the main characters here are attitudes personified as men and women. Both Newland and Ellen, a set of complimentary characters, represent the transition from conformity to individuality, struggling to find the balance whereby the institution of family might be brought in line with the respect a dissenting individual deserves.         

In the broad sense, way beyond America and the upper social classes, the case pursued here is one of justice—justice not only in legal terms but in the social context, particularly when the two run into conflict. As Newland tells Ellen, “Our legislation favors divorce but our social customs don’t.”—an observation that remains valid to date. And nowhere is this conflict more painfully manifest than in societies where custom practically dominates the law. How else do we explain the incidence of violation of law to punish the youth through social banishment at the least and killing in the name of honor at the worst? Newland and Ellen personify the eternal human demand for justice, on the level of the beat of a single heart, the voice of one soul.

Despite its deep involvement with individualism and nonconformity, The Age of Innocence is, by all means, a lesson in endurance. The two protagonists never talk of elopement, though Newland is tempted to use this choice and do away with norms and convention. In one of their meetings, after his marriage to May, Newland expresses his angst (Day-Lewis at his best again) over living against the cry of his inner self: “You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and then you told me to carry on with the false one. No one can endure that.” Here, Ellen’s short answer with perfect composure goes straight to the heart: “I’m enduring it.” This quality of the human spirit is vital to peace—the hallmark of enlightened societies.

With fantastic set and designing, excellent editing, and grasping performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer (actually it was Winona Ryder who claimed a Golden Globe Award for impressive performance in a supporting role), The Age of Innocence is truly the classic par excellence of Hollywood.