Martin Scorsese is my favourite director so it’s no surprise that he makes quite a number of appearances on my list of 100 favourite films. People love Scorsese...even his films that don’t get all the love [King of Comedy, Mean Streets, Casino] are still widely loved...expect for this. I could be wrong. Maybe there are people out there who love this...but I’ve never met them. I think this is Scorsese’s most underrated film. It is not ostensibly about deception, anguish or war as Good Fellas, The Departed or Raging Bull. But The Age of Innocence is as profound as Scorsese’s other works. The story is adapted from Edith Wharton's novel of the same name. It tells the story of a Newland Archer, a wealthy New York Bachelor. He is engaged to May Whitfield – a pretty, rich and dim young lady who seems infatuated with Newland. Newland is ready to set down and all seems to be going well until the appearance of May’s cousin – Countess Olenska. Olenska is European and divorcing her husband – scandalous in New York. May encourages Newland to befriend Olenska – she a social pariah...and their friendship becomes something more...
I wasn’t around in the days when the phrase Merchant Ivory signified brilliance but I’m still appreciative of the great work they’ve done in adapting classic literature to classic film. Few have done it as excellently as they have. The Remains of the Day was their final juggernaut that triumphed with Oscar – and yet the film won none of the eight Oscars it was nominated – a pity really. Something The Remains of the Days shares The Age of Innocence is a relationship between two protagonists that doesn’t go too far; in some ways I suppose it’s even going far to call the relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton a romantic one. But it is. Isn’t it? And like Scorsese’s flick The Remains of the Day is concerned with changing social norms.Stevens has a definitive connection to his home and it’s a bit tragic to watch as it’s auctioned off, bit by bit.
The Age of Innocence is a beautiful period piece...but above all else, it is an actors’ flick. Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day Lewis and Winona Ryder give outstanding performances as the three leads. If I ruled the world Daniel Day Lewis would have won a second Oscar for either this or In the Name of the Father and Michelle Pfeiffer would have also been on the receiving end of a nomination and battling it out with Emma Thompson for the win. I always marvel at how these performances were ignored. Winona Ryder was the lone cast member to make it to the Oscar race. On first viewing I was smitten with the performance. It does not hold up as well, but it is still a good performance. It’s a difficult character. Is May really that bland or is it Winona’s characterisation? It’s a tough call...but I think that May is just an unremarkable young lady. But the ending of the film makes you reassess everything that you thought earlier. Is May in fact the least honest character in The Age of Innocence? It doesn’t seem outlandish to assume that perhaps May knew of Newland’s attraction to Ellen throughout, and that one assumption makes her character so much fuller. May just may be the most artful wife. It’s a typically Scorsese turn – even if the inclination is provided by Wharton.
And speaking of endings, who can forget the lovely departure Emma Thompson makes in The Remains of the Day. My allegiances do lie with that other Thompson/Hopkins/Merchant Ivory flick. But even I won’t deny that Emma and Anthony are quite excellent here. The Remains of the Day is Anthony’s story completely and nothing he has done before or since feels as profound, real and iconic as his Stevens. It’s a wondrous thing to watch him as he shields his emotion. In some ways his Stevens seems to be the perfect companion to Helen Mirren’s Mrs. Wilson. The two would have existed in perfect cohesion. The film is all Anthony’s, but this never prevents Emma from making her mark – and with so little time. Pragmatic and yet attractive Emma is excellent throughout, but it’s here tears at the end of the film that always get to me. Such skill.
I know everybody was going crazy in 1993 about Schindler’s List and The Piano – two great films. But my three favourites of that year were The Remains of the Day, In the Name of the Father, The Age of Innocence. Their ranking changes from year to year but these three films had the most profound impact on me – for different reasons.