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This movie won an Oscar for Best Costume Design.

‘The Age of Innocence’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 17, 1993

In the movies, we're usually ushered to the mannered past by the stuffy Merchant-Ivory team. What a sublime pleasure it is, then, to experience "The Age of Innocence" through the eyes of Martin Scorsese. With historical specialists on one side of him, and cameraman Michael Ballhaus on the other, he goes to sharp and sumptuous work.

Instead of "Masterpiece Theatre"-style fawning, he fills this movie with visual flow, masterful cinematography and assured direction. There's an alert, thinking presence behind the camera. And, in front of the camera, performers Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder suffuse this saga of repressed longing and spiritual suffering with elegant authority.

"Innocence," set in New York's upper-middle-class society of the 1870s, takes richly detailed stock of its world. Life is a continuous, formalized pantomime, as the leisured attend operas, saunter through flower gardens and gossip in drawing rooms. Swathed in suffocating finery, they are equally constricted by their petty obsessions with nuance, custom and reputation.

Brought up in this era, Day-Lewis (as central character Newland Archer) is to experience intolerable anguish when passion clashes with tradition. Engaged to Ryder, and about to join her labyrinthine, socially conscious family, he's hypnotically drawn to his fiancee's distant cousin Pfeiffer, a countess and free spirit. Escaping a bad marriage to a philandering husband in Europe, Pfeiffer has retreated to New York to take emotional shelter. But she is instantly blindsided by the exacting code her family lives by.

"Is fashion such a serious consideration?" she asks, when Day-Lewis tries to impress upon her the importance of wearing the right kind of dress.

"Only among people who have nothing more serious to consider," says Day-Lewis.

Through Pfeiffer, Day-Lewis realizes how artificial his life is. Pfeiffer, whose marital estrangement makes her the subject of interminable gossip, is a song of freedom, a precursor of the modern age. To break off the engagement, and join Pfeiffer, would be instant liberation. But Day-Lewis is intractably stuck in his times. Panicked, he hurries up the wedding. It only makes matters worse. Now married to Ryder, he remains painfully in love with Pfeiffer -- and she with him. Over a quarter century, Day-Lewis suffers the rupture of a man unable to act on his deepest impulses.

This kind of internalized, long-term agony is familiar fare to readers of classical novels. But the movie, like the 1921 Edith Wharton novel on which it's based, transcends the familiarity with its absorbing, panoramic sensibility. You feel what it's like to live in this world. You understand the oppressive forces that make Day-Lewis remain existentially stalemated.

Day-Lewis, playing a repressed, secretive character, has to work within small boundaries. At the beginning, when he has to react to his world collapsing around him, more is asked of him. He responds memorably. But in the second half, his character is restricted to being permanently glum. He's forced to suffer an antiheroic descent, rather than the gradually rising triumph arc most Hollywood characters undergo.

Pfeiffer is the strongest presence of all. A figure of social revolution, she's also a compendium of opposites. Naive in matters of social decorum, she's wise in the rules of unconventional love. She's a non-interventionalist in terms of the affair, yet she secretly regulates it, as well as Day-Lewis's life. Even the most "accidental" meetings between them are the result of her adroit manipulations.

Ryder, clearly the rookie here, is rather dull and pallid. But she's being used correctly. She fulfills her thankless role perfectly. Initially, she's a mere symbol of oppression in Day-Lewis's life. But (without giving too much of the plot) her character develops significantly. Eventually, she proves to be as deft and decisive as her female rival.

"Innocence" is graced with wonderful acting support, particularly from Miriam Margolyes, as an amusingly imperial -- and Yoda-esque -- dowager; Stuart Wilson, a quasi-rival of Day-Lewis's for Pfeiffer's affections; and the wonderfully eccentric Richard E. Grant as Larry Lefferts, a fussy cataloguer of the social ups and downs of New York's upper strata.

Scorsese, who scripted with Jay Cocks, is essentially faithful to the novel. He even replays the novel's omniscient voice with deft narration from Joanne Woodward. But he embellishes everything with his signature style. When Day-Lewis talks privately to Pfeiffer, in the midst of a social circle, Scorsese creates an irising effect, which literally excludes everyone else, leaving the two aspiring lovers in an isolated circle of intimacy.

Scorsese also focuses on physical objects -- such as white gloves and place settings -- with fetishistic devotion. In this world, after all, they are the most important things of all. The color of things hasn't been this texturally worshiped in years: In one memorable, ravishing scene, Pfeiffer -- caught in an amber splash of sunshine -- admires yellow roses sent to her by Day-Lewis, as the camera circles rhapsodically around her. Known primarily for modern street pictures, such as "Taxi Driver" and "GoodFellas," Scorsese shows he can flex an entirely different set of muscles and still make a great movie.

Copyright The Washington Post

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