4 out of 5
reviewer: Maggie Starr
It was a time when propriety and decorum governed the upper classes with a rigid hand; a time when appearances were everything. Lying just beneath society's sparkling exterior, however, was a world steeped in hypocrisy and stifled passions In an elegant New York City Opera House a large audience sits captivated by the dramatic performance onstage. All except Newland Archer, that is. He is far more interested in a box seat high above the crowd, wherein sits his pretty fiancé May Welland (Winona Ryder) and her mother. As he fixes his opera glasses on them, we see that there is a third occupant in the box: a pale, lovely woman who wears an air of mystery.
Mr. Archer is quickly informed that the stranger is none other than the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michlle Pfeiffer), May Welland's cousin. Wed to a Polish Count some years ago, the Countess has now returned to America to escape her soured marriage. Newland (Daniel Day-Lewis) remembers Ellen from childhood and pitying her sad situation, persuades May to formally announce their engagement following the opera. By creating such a diversion he hopes that the gossips wont pay as much attention to the Countess. The engagement is joyfully received; Newland and May seem the perfect picture of romantic bliss. They enjoy each others company, never quarrel, and are both eager for the wedding day to arrive. But we soon learn appearances can be deceiving. The Countess has decided to request a divorce and asks Mr. Archer, a lawyer by profession, to handle the proceedings. Newland has heard vague rumors of Ellen's scandalous life after her separation from the Count which includes a lover or two. In his mind, divorce would be the worst option. The Count would surely reveal the secrets of her illicit affair and parade the lurid details on the front page of every newspaper. Ellen would become an instant outcast; everyone knows the inflexible Code of Society: people of such wicked character must be ostracized. They cannot continue to associate with the "Upstanding."
The ironic twist to this unwritten "law," is that many of Ellen's would-be condemners (including her husband) have dark secrets of their own, which they've just barely managed to conceal from the prying eyes of society. Through their professional interactions, Ellen and Newland grow increasingly familiar. Her boldness refreshes him; she couldn't care less what New York thinks of her and openly mocks their hypocrisy. In him she finds a sympathetic confidante and a strong source of comfort. As his intimacy with Ellen deepens, Newland begins to feel troubled His future with May suddenly seems dull and meaningless; the gay whirl of Society, oppressive and dampening. Finally just weeks before the wedding, Newland and the Countess realize that their feelings are much stronger than those belonging to a mere friendship. What to do? Luckily, nave little May suspects nothing of the attachment or does she? Will their consuming passion take them beyond the point of return?
Above all, this film is a feast for the eyes. The costumes are absolutely breathtaking (the designer won an Oscar for her efforts and its easy to see why). They brought 1870s New York City to life with amazing accuracy and beauty -- no visual details were overlooked. At times the sumptuous scenery, sets, and props are almost overwhelming in their lavishness. It seemed as if the filmmakers were concentrating more on the set design than the plot, which may be why I found it difficult to become involved with the characters. Even so, the actors were nicely cast, especially Winona Ryder as the rather vapid fiancé. The Age of Innocence has no sex or nudity and Ellen and Newland never progress beyond a tortured embrace or two, but the subject of adultery is not really something little ones need to dwell on. There is the vague insinuation that both Count and Countess Olenska had extramarital affairs, and another well-known gentlemen is rumored to be keeping a mistress (though she is never called by that term). Newland ultimately decides not to pursue a relationship with the Countess, an action that I applaud; however, his motivation isn't exactly right. God has commanded us not to commit adultery, but Newlands decision is made out of the fear of society, not the fear of the Lord.
Its a quiet film that moves along at a measured pace to a rather bittersweet ending. But if you enjoy costume dramas (as I do) the stunning visual quality will well repay any disappointment you have with the storyline.