It was a glittering, sumptuous time when hypocrisy was expected, discreet infidelity tolerated, and unconventionality ostracized.
That is the Gilded Age, and nobody knew its hypocrises better than Edith Wharton. And while you wouldn't expect Martin Scorsese to be able to pull off an adaptation of her novel "The Age of Innocence," this movie is a trip back in time to the stuffy upper crust of "old New York," taking us through one respectable man's hopeless love affair with a beautiful woman -- and the life he isn't brave enough to have.
Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), of a wealthy old New York family, has become engaged to pretty, naive May Welland (Winona Ryder). But as he tries to get their wedding date moved up, he becomes acquainted with May's exotic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has dumped her cheating husband.
At first the two are just friends, but after Newland marries May, the attraction to the mysterious Countess and her free, unconventional life becomes even stronger, but he's still mired in a 100% conventional marriage, job and life. Will he become an outcast and go away with the beautiful countess, or will he stick with May and the safe, dull life that he has condemned in others?
Yeah, I kind of blinked when I found out that the subtle, bittersweet Wharton novel set in a gilded upper-crust New York... was being directed by the guy who also did "Raging Bull" and "The Gangs of New York." But fortunately Scorses sticks closely to the original novel -- we even have an omniscient narrator who quotes directly from Wharton's book as she describes New York society.
He preserves Wharton's portrayal of New York in the 1870s -- opulent, cultured, pleasant, yet so tied up in tradition that few people in it are able to really open up and live. It's a haze of ballrooms, gardens, engagements, and careful social rituals that absolutely MUST be followed, even if they have no meaning.
And he delicately brings out the powerful half-hidden emotions that the story revolves around. One great example: a sexy carriage ride where Newland slowly unbuttons Ellen's glove and gently kisses her pale wrist -- it's sensual and erotic without being explicit.
Day-Lewis gives the awesome performance you would expect -- his Newland is stiff and repressed, and nowhere near as awesomely unconventional as he thinks himself to be. Pfeiffer and Ryder don't physically look like May and Ellen, but they give excellent performances: Ryder plays a seemingly innocent, naive young woman who shows hints that she's a lot smarter than Newland thinks, while Pfeiffer plays a more worldly noblewoman who craves love and kindness.
"The Age of Innocence" is an exquisite painting of 19th-century New York's upper crust -- the hypocrisy, the beauty, and the sorrow. If only Scorsese would make more movies like this.