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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

April 29, 2010 at 10:32 AM

A look back at “The Age of Innocence”

I noticed in the paper that today is Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer’s birthday, a coincidence that of course got me thinking about Martin Scorsese’s great 1993 period drama, “The Age of Innocence.” The film, based on Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is an achingly poignant story set in 1870s New York, among three people: Newland Archer (Day-Lewis), a proper man of society anxious to do the right thing; Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer), returned home from America after a bad marriage in Europe; and May Welland (Winona Ryder), Archer’s young fiancee. Newland and Ellen, almost immediately upon setting eyes on each other, realize their powerful attraction to each other, but cannot act upon it; to do so would violate the rules of society Newland — and, to a lesser extent, the rebellious but still-proper Ellen — has based his life upon. Filmed in sumptuous colors and the kind of lavish sets and costumes this era requires, it’s nonetheless a small, intimate movie; the story of, as screenwriter Jay Cocks puts it, “wanting something you can’t have, and not wanting what you do have.” Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer (who was never more beautiful on screen, and that’s saying a lot) create a chemistry that seems to sear the lens; one scene, as they are finally, briefly alone in a closed carriage, is quite possibly the most erotic fully clothed moment in all of cinema. A unique film in Scorsese’s distinguished repertory, it’s about what can’t be said, and about how an actor nonetheless can say it without words. I love how Day-Lewis always holds himself so carefully upright, showing us a man who prides himself on being in perfect control (despite a look on his face that, if you look closely, suggests otherwise), and how Pfeiffer gives the vulnerable, almost innocent Ellen the kind of elegantly arched speech that befits someone who’s spent much of her adult life among Europeans — and who puts a world of pain into the soft phrase “I am enduring it.” And the ending of this film, with one character pausing quietly on a bench before walking away, is haunting and perfect; love lost, yet remembered.
I scoured YouTube but couldn’t find a clip of the carriage scene, but I did find something interesting: a documentary about the making of the film, which I’m guessing might be on the DVD. It’s fun to hear Day-Lewis (dressed, charmingly, in a contemporary outfit that nonetheless includes a purple cravat) talk about Newland and how the movie’s yellow roses represented the first step on a path for him, and Scorsese discussing the attraction the material held for him. For fans of the movie, this is a treat. I’m embedding the first part of the doc below; if you’re interested in the rest of it, here are links to part 2 and part 3.

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