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This movie won an Oscar for Best Costume Design.

‘The Age of Innocence’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 17, 1993

Like "Raging Bull," "GoodFellas" and other Martin Scorsese films, "The Age of Innocence" is about the tyranny of the culture over the individual and the rites that preserve the tribe, be it the Mafia or a coterie of 19th-century snobs. Perhaps it shouldn't come as such a grand surprise that he is as deft at exploring the nuances of Edwardian manners as he is the laws of modern-day machismo.

With the lush opening credits -- a collage of flowers and lace -- Scorsese seems to be parting the curtains so that we may glimpse not only the gorgeous excesses but the gossipy intimacies of Old New York. In his obsessively researched adaptation of Edith Wharton's observant novel, the director presents a lavish vision of a vanished community where the flutter of a fan was worth a thousand words. New York in the 1870s is a gilded, gas-lit fairyland, where the Morgans and Vanderbilts lord over brownstone manors and 13-course meals. The age of innocence, indeed.

Like a lady in a corset, the American aristocracy held in its glut through its rigid mores. As Wharton's satire told it, the robber barons were especially ruthless when it came to maintaining their lineage. Here we are privy to the sly pressures they employ in curbing the passions of a straying son.

The drama unfolds in a practiced manner, as if in tune with the rhythms of the rituals that shape the gentry's lives: the opera, the balls, the interminable dinners, the recitals, the salons. Narrator Joanne Woodward wryly describes it as "a world balanced so precariously that its harmony could be shattered by a whisper." Never mind the intrusion of an all-consuming love.

Faithfully adapted by Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks, this tragic romance centers on the misadventures of Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), whose upcoming marriage to the debutante May Welland (Winona Ryder) is threatened by his attraction to her alluring cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Ellen is a sexy modern woman who not only smokes but is planning to divorce the count; her disarming views may enchant Newland but they threaten the social order. Newland doesn't notice the machinations of the elite power brokers until it is much too late. And when it comes to giving up the high life for love, he is both too wise and too weak. Thus, the would-be lovers are left to pine, yearn and smolder most deliciously -- his most daring act is to unbutton her glove and kiss her wrist.

May continues to play the role of the guileless child, though she is well aware that she has a serious rival in her cousin. Perfectly adapted to the subtleties of what Wharton described as "a hieroglyphic world where the real thing was never said, or done, or even thought," May is adept at reading subtext -- a necessity among her kind. Even after she and Newland are safely married, she continues her conniving, and successfully bamboozles her husband into a life of quiet desperation. Many years later, he has a chance to see Countess Olenska one more time, but he dares not, for as the narrator explains, "she had become the complete vision of all he had missed."

Ryder, whose performance is as neatly turned as her ankle, is fresh from "Bram Stoker's Dracula," an experience that taught her a thing or two about sucking the life out of one's beloved. Of course, Day-Lewis, who counts tortured romanticism among his specialties, seems to relish love's exquisite pangs. He and Pfeiffer are physically as gorgeous together as their gilded surroundings.

Pfeiffer is no stranger to period drama; she won an Oscar nomination for the role of Madame de Tourvel in "Dangerous Liaisons." But de Tourvel traded her honor for passion, a bargain the more worldly countess could never bring herself to make. And from what we know of Scorsese, dishonor is never an option. Misery, yes -- consider Jake LaMotta, Jesus in "The Last Temptation" and Travis Bickel in "Taxi Driver."

Though lovely to behold, this film isn't meant to send you home with a song in your heart. Of course, musicals have never been Scorsese's forte. Though he's fallen on his face with experiments like "New York, New York," Scorsese remains cocky enough to abandon successful formulas. If "The Age of Innocence" is any measure, a break with tradition leads to greater things.

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