The Age of Innocence
No filmmaker captures the grandeur and energy of New York like Martin Scorsese. With this sumptuous romance, he meticulously adapted the work of another great New York artist, Edith Wharton, bringing to life her tragic novel of the cloistered world of Gilded Age Manhattan. The Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), whose engagement to an innocent socialite (Winona Ryder) binds him to the codes and rituals of his upbringing. But when her cousin (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives in town on a wave of scandal after separating from her husband, she ignites passions in Newland he never knew existed. Swelling with exquisite period detail, this film is an alternately heartbreaking and satirical look at the brutality of old-world America.
Finally getting a Blu-ray release, Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence is presented here on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The 4K restoration was done by Grover Crisp for Sony and comes from a scan of the 35mm original camera negative.
I can’t imagine this film ever having looked anywhere near as lovely as it does here. The film is pretty OCD in the level of detail it presents in the costumes, the food, the various interiors and exteriors, and just about every piece of furniture and cutlery, jam-pacing every frame with an intricate amounts of detail. The presentation here handles this all rather effortlessly, all of those little details and textures coming popping brilliantly off of the screen. Scorsese does employ some cinematic tricks that can soften the image a bit, or at least in areas of the screen, but as far as the digital presentation is concerned the image is as sharp as it possibly could be.
Though Scorsese and director of photography Michael Ballhaus don’t go to the same extremes that Kubrick and company went to on Barry Lyndon, the film does aim to create a look where dark interiors are being lit solely by candle light, creating some rich and deep shadows in the process. The black levels are exceptionally strong in this presentation, rich and deep without crushing, so these scenes stay clean with superb detail levels. Colours are also brilliantly saturated, with some gorgeous yellows and reds, most notable in the colourful dissolves that Scorsese employs here and there.
As expected there is no damage of note, and film grain is rendered superbly. In all, those you have been waiting (a ridiculous amount of time) for this to finally get a release on Blu-ray they will be happy to know the wait was well worth it. It looks unbelievably good here.
The film’s soundtrack is pretty typical of most period films of the time and the DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track does a wonderful job with it. Most dialogue and effects are directed to the fronts, with distinct and clear panning and movement, the surrounds picking up some ambient noises on the streets, in the theaters, or at parties. But it’s the film’s score—which likes to swell and fill out the environment at key moments—that utilizes the surround presentation effectively with excellent range and clarity. It’s a very dynamic track on the whole and was a far richer experience than I was expecting.
I’ll give Criterion some credit here: looking over the supplement listing it wouldn’t be unfair to assume this is pretty much a barebones edition but the disc does actually pack a fair amount of material.
First off Criterion does do a fairly good job at rounding up participants, even managing to get the participation of director Martin Scorsese, who talks about the film here with Kent Jones for around 23-minutes. Almost like two old friends the two talk about how Scorsese first became drawn to the book and how it fascinated him to make a film that would meticulously explore this world, sharing some general details about adapting the book with Jay Cocks. He also explains the decisions he made for certain sequences (like why he used that choppy POV in that first binoculars shot) and then goes over the various films that did influence him (no surprise that Visconti was a fairly large influence, The Leopard and Senso in particular).
It’s a rich and wonderful discussion but I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more about adapting, but that gap is filled with the next interview, a new one with screenwriter Jay Cocks. Cocks focuses specifically on the adaptation here, offering more details about how he and Scorsese worked together, sometimes in synch on ideas to a frightening degree. A lot of research went into this as well (no surprise there) though some of the work he had already done on Gangs of New York (which the two had been working on well before this one) helped with the details on this film. There’s also talk of images they had come across that made their way into the film along with the decision to use narration, how they wrote the script without any particular actor in mind (and from this we learn how the casting decisions were made), and how said actors found humour in his dialogue that he didn’t even realize was there. He offers a lot of praise for the actors, talking about a number of key performances.
Those two interviews alone are rather rich and rewarding about adapting the book for film and the various cinematic decisions that went into it, but Criterion next provides two new separate interviews going into more detail about the film’s look, featuring production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Gabriella Pescucci, both interviewed by Antonio Monda. The two explain how Scorsese came to hire them (Ferretti says he was first approached by Scorsese to do The Last Temptation of Christ, though was unable to work with him at the time) and then the research they used, which went right down to Pescucci researching the type of fabrics that would have been used (this of course paid off for her since she took an Academy Award home for her work). Ferretti describes how he also went as far as bringing a “method actor” like approach to designing the interiors, trying to think like an architect of the time period when designing as he didn’t want to directly copy anything pre-existing. On top of this the two also get into specific about the sets or costumes, with Pescucci focusing on certain characters, while also sharing some slight annoyances or funny stories: Ferretti, though pleased with Ballhaus’ work on the film in the end, was a bit agitated on how he would use too much light when illuminating the sets, destroying a candlelit look he was trying to achieve. The two interviews are both fairly technical but engaging and even funny, and though I knew a lot of work went into the look of the film (the detail is fetishistic) I think I was still shocked at the amount of work these two put into it and I found the angle they came in from fascinating.
The release closes off with the film’s theatrical trailer (one of those great 90s Don LaFontaine “in a time of…” things) but before that we first get a 25-minute HBO documentary on the making of the film called Innocence and Experience, which was probably intended to be no more than a glorified promo but ends up being more engaging and worthwhile than that. Admittedly there isn’t anything that equals the level of detail found in the new interviews on this edition but there’s some decent behind-the-scenes material along with more of a look at Edith Wharton’s novel and how Scorsese has captured New York in most of his films (up to that point of course). But of most interest here are a number of other interviews: not only do you get interviews with Scorsese, Cocks, and Ferretti again, but other members of the cast and crew show up, including producer Barbara De Fina, director of photography Michael Ballhaus, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, composer Elmer Bernstein, and actors Daniel Day-Lewis (in discussion with Scorsese), Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder and Richard E. Grant. Much to my surprise it makes a decent addition to this release.
An actual booklet (stapled and everything) is included and it features a rather lengthy essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, who shares his thoughts on the film and why Scorsese was probably drawn to the original novel, pointing out how the social structure isn’t too far removed from his mafia films like Goodfellas.
Though the material is very good I’m surprised Criterion didn’t do a little more. I guess I’m not too surprised they didn’t (or more than likely couldn’t) arrange interviews with any of the performers (we’re limited to what we get from the HBO documentary) but I am surprised there isn’t anything specific about Wharton and/or the novel. Also, it’s worth noting that the film didn’t receive the best of reviews when it was first released, a lot of critics (and audiences) not sure what to make of Scorsese’s first go at a “costume drama” when he was more well known for his violent pictures that came before (which of course was unfair considering his entire body of work but it probably didn’t help he had just done Goodfellas and Cape Fear before this). A reappraisal seems to have happened since and a feature addressing this may have been beneficial, or at the very least, interesting.
It’s a bit of a shame this doesn’t receive a bigger special edition but the features we do get are well worth going through while the restoration and final presentation is a real stunner.