Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Classics: A Review of The Age of Innocence By Lauren Ennis

Did I hear wrong or did she just have an original thought

In today’s world ruled by virtual interaction and instant gratification it is difficult not to feel nostalgic for simpler, more innocent, days gone by. By viewing the past through idealized perceptions, however, we often fail to acknowledge the hardships, restrictions, and expectations that people were forced to endure in past eras. One film reveals the hidden struggles of the past in a way that will give even the most nostalgic of viewers a greater appreciation for the present. In his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence, director Martin Scorcese presents a tale of love, loss, and regret that exposes the hypocrisy and oppression that tarnished what is too often remembered as a pure era.

The story begins as Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) returns to New York after requesting a divorce form he European husband. The countess’ scandalous return occurs just as her cousin, May Welland (Winona Ryder), is preparing to announce her engagement to lawyer and fellow aristocrat Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis). While May and her family patiently tolerate Ellen’s presence, Newland is outraged that his chaste fiancée is being associated with her much gossiped about cousin. When Ellen announces her intention to make her divorce final, however, the Wellands reach their breaking point and plead with Newland to take Ellen’s case. For the sake of May’s reputation, Newland reluctantly takes the case and sets to work persuading Ellen to remain separated from her husband without taking the disreputable step of obtaining a divorce. When Ellen finally agrees to stop pursuing a divorce, Newland is elated and immediately begins pressuring May to consent to a shorter engagement. By the time that May’s family agrees to a sooner wedding, however, Newland has begun spending more time with Ellen and has come to regret his decision. As the wedding approaches, Newland realizes that all the qualities that he once cherished in May are the very qualities which he admires Ellen for not possessing. Although Newland knows that he cannot be truly happy in a life without Ellen, the conventions of New York society prove to be a far greater barrier than either he or Ellen had ever imagined.

Like Wharton’s novel, the film’s greatest strength is the way in which it explores the onerous demands and vicious retaliations of its supposedly innocent society. The film accurately portrays the traditions and mores of Old New York while remaining true to Wharton’s biting social commentary. Throughout the film, Newland is conflicted between the life that he desires and the life that he has been conditioned to live. This conflict mirrors the greater division between individualism and conformity that New York society imposed upon its citizens.  For instance, while it is widely known that Ellen’s husband had been both abusive towards and unfaithful to her, her friends and family ostracize her for going against convention and asking for a divorce. Similarly, Ellen’s family prefers May, who possesses none of Ellen’s generosity or intelligence, because despite any shortcomings that she might possess, May both knows and adheres to the standards of her society. Newland is faced with the hypocrisies that he had been previously blind to when he finds himself being persecuted for loving Ellen even though the couple never acts upon their love. Although both Ellen and Newland want to be honest about their feelings, they know all too well that such an infraction would not be permitted to go unpunished by society. As a result, the pair is forced to hide and repress their love for one another while those around them carry on affairs and other social indiscretions just out of public view. By making her protagonists honorable outcasts, Wharton adeptly denounces the double standards of society while highlighting the dangers of conformity.

The days when it was acceptable to treat your fiance like a puppy
The cast superbly brings the deceptively simple tale to vibrant life through the nuance and depth of their performances. The central cast manages the difficult tasks of conveying their characters’ inner torment while still maintaining their outward propriety. Daniel Day-Lewis’ understated performance remains true to the story’s repressive milieu while still maintaining enough intensity to make viewers empathize with Newland’s loss. Similarly, Winona Ryder excellently plays both the outwardly innocent child that May pretends to be and the inwardly manipulative woman that she is. The film’s standout performance fittingly belongs to the actress playing a heroine who cannot help but stand out; Michelle Pfeiffer. Her combination of world weariness and idealism makes Ellen a complicated heroine whom viewers can’t help but root for. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent and helps draw viewers into a time that is entirely foreign to modern audiences. Through their performances, the cast provides audiences with a glimpse into the lives, loves, and conflicts of gilded age society that reveals the guilt, hypocrisy, and cruelty lying just beneath its glittering surface.

Through its combination of love, loss, and social commentary, The Age of Innocence is a film that remains relevant to any age. With its condemnation of social hypocrisy and blind conventionalism, the film’s historical tale echoes a warning that is as pertinent today as it was in the gilded age in which it was set. The excellent cast and crew capture the story’s subtleties and complexities in a way that ensures that the film is able to remain both enjoyable to modern audiences and historically accurate. Though far from innocent, this film is as poignant, profound, and ultimately heartbreaking as any love story past or present.

Just imagine the thought bubbles for these three

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