Between Cape Fear and Casino, Martin Scorsese jazzed up Edith Wharton in The Age Of Innocence

Between Cape Fear and Casino, Martin Scorsese jazzed up Edith Wharton in The Age Of Innocence

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Baz Luhrmann’s flashy adaptation of The Great Gatsby has us remembering other hyper-stylized takes on high-school reading-list staples.

The Age Of Innocence is the most underrated and underseen of Martin Scorsese’s major works. Like Casino—Scorsese’s following feature—it combines a chilly, melancholy tone with a playful and imaginative style; unmotivated close-ups, rapid dissolves, and dreamy dolly moves abound. Eccentric and opulent, The Age Of Innocence is one of the director’s most visually dense works. It’s packed with flowers, table settings, calling cards, and other assorted 19th-century bric-a-brac. Paintings and folding screens create frames within the frame.

The Age Of Innocence is, in certain ways, a straightforward adaptation of Edith Wharton’s AP Lit staple—a sad story about lost opportunities in 1870s New York. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as a well-bred lawyer who is engaged to a naïve girl (Winona Ryder) but longs for her scandalous, free-spirited cousin (Michelle Pfeiffer). Big chunks of Wharton’s prose, read by a narrator (Joanne Woodward), fill in the finer points of plot and milieu.

While the manners-obsessed upper-class setting and low-key plotting are undoubtedly Wharton’s, the ways in which they are invoked and handled are pure Scorsese. Like another great Wharton adaptation, Terence Davies’ The House Of Mirth (2000), The Age Of Innocence remains faithful to the writer’s prose and voice while also allowing its director to break new stylistic ground. It’s the most experimental of Scorsese’s big-budget productions; as in Francis Ford Coppola’s contemporaneous Dracula—with which The Age Of Innocence shares a cinematographer, two cast members, and a fondness for optical printing effects—the vibe is less prestige-y period drama and more literary fever dream. 

And yet, despite its expressive and energetic style, the movie is uncharacteristically understated; it’s the one great Scorsese movie without any shouting or scenery-chewing. Actors in Scorsese movies tend to be as showy as the camera movements; here, however, the performances are largely unstylized. Day-Lewis imbues his character with a feline tenor and a world-weary half-smile; it’s subtle, naturalistic acting—a far cry from Bill The Butcher or Daniel Plainview. The Age Of Innocence’s mixture of formal exaggeration and actorly understatement is striking—and intoxicating.

Availability: DVD, but no Blu-ray yet (though one is supposedly in the works for a 2013 release); rental or purchase from the usual digital providers; and disc rental from Netflix.

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