Viewer Guide: The Age of Innocence and Married Life with Richard Peña

May 18, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.



The Age of Innocence (1993)

This week’s classic is The Age of Innocence, a 1993 romantic drama adapted from the novel by Edith Wharton and directed by Martin Scorsese.

Making his reputation with movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas that explore the seamy, violent side of American life, director Martin Scorsese moved to a far more genteel milieu with The Age of Innocence, at least at first glance. Traveling back to author Edith Wharton’s meticulously detailed chronicle of life in the Gilded Age of “old New York,” The Age of Innocence spins a doomed tale of societal repression and thwarted romance that Scorsese once remarked was “the most violent movie I ever made,” yet without shedding a drop of blood.

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Newland Archer, a prosperous lawyer who is newly engaged to the lovely young May Welland, played by Winona Ryder, the very image of a dewy bride from one of New York’s best families. Newland’s aristocratic, well-ordered life seems to be proceeding exactly as planned.

That is until he encounters May’s older cousin Ellen, the luminous Michelle Pfeiffer, recently returned to New York after walking out on a failed marriage to a Polish count. Now referred to as “Countess Olenska” in hushed tones redolent of unspeakable scandal, Ellen has been bravely welcomed back to town by May’s family, and Newland quickly becomes fascinated by her independent ways and unconventional attitudes. When Ellen finally decides to seek a divorce, Newland counsels her on behalf of the Welland family not to proceed. Yet as his feelings for Ellen deepen, it’s a decision he will come to profoundly regret, finding himself more and more ensnared by the unspoken rules that govern old New York society with an iron grip.

Rounding out the large supporting cast in sharply etched cameo performances are Miriam Margolyes, Michael Gough, Richard E. Grant, Stuart Wilson, Mary Beth Hurt, Alec McCowen, Sian Phillips, Jonathan Pryce, Geraldine Chaplin and Robert Sean Leonard. The elegantly knowing “voice of Edith Wharton” narration is provided by Joanne Woodward.

With the publication of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence in 1920, author Edith Wharton was writing of the long-vanished New York City of her childhood, before both the internationally cataclysmic events of World War I, and also before the self-imposed European exile of her later years. While clearly registering her protest against the emotionally suffocating society that traps Newland Archer, Wharton also imbues the novel with an elegiac tone for a time that has gone by.

While at first glance Wharton and Scorsese would seem to make odd artistic bedfellows, both made a specialty out of surgically exploring the societal customs of their respective native milieus, dramatizing how so much of life’s conflict is generated by the self-imposed rules that people make for themselves. Writing to her sister in law in 1926, Wharton commented, “I have always thought The Age of Innocence would make a splendid film if done by someone with brains—and education!” While the novel had in fact already been adapted as a silent film in 1924 and would be made as a sound film in 1934 with Irene Dunne, hopefully Wharton would have felt that her masterwork had finally received the sensitivity and artistic creativity it so richly deserved some sixty years later with Scorsese’s interpretation.

As so little of the world described by Wharton still exists in New York City, Scorsese shot the bulk of the film upstate in Troy, New York. The film’s lavish opera sequences were actually filmed at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actress for Winona Ryder, Best Adapted Screenplay for Scorsese and Jay Cocks, Best Score for Elmer Bernstein and Best Art Direction for Dante Ferretti and Robert J. Franco, only Gabriella Pescucci took home the Oscar for her sumptuous costume design.


Married Life (2007)

This week’s indie is Married Life, a 2007 suspense drama based on a novel by John Bingham, directed by Ira Sachs.

Set in 1949, Married Life transports us into the mid-century suburban world of Harry and Pat Allen, played by Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson, a childless, middle-aged couple who at first glance appear to be nestled just as comfortably in their marriage as they are in their upper-middle-class surroundings. Yet as we soon learn from the narration of Harry’s best friend Richard, played by Pierce Brosnan, all is not well in Harry and Pat’s world, or at least not in Harry’s half of it. It seems Harry has fallen in love with Kay Nesbitt, a lovely young widow played by Rachel McAdams, and after much soul-searching, he has finally decided he wants to leave Pat. The problem is, how to do it? Harry still very much cares for dear Pat, and knowing of her unswerving devotion to him, Harry is convinced that his announcement to end the marriage would just kill her. If that’s the problem, then perhaps it might also be the solution?

And so, taking a page or two from American film noir, Married Life holds up a distorted funhouse mirror to the darker side of long-term relationships, where fidelity and adultery sometimes turn out to be different sides of the same slippery coin.

Based on John Bingham’s 1953 novel “Five Roundabouts to Heaven,” if Married Life reminds you of an Alfred Hitchcock film, it nearly was. Bingham’s book was actually adapted in 1962 as “The Tender Poisoner” for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series. Married Life embodies some of the “master of suspense’s” favorite themes, blending black comedy with some devious truths about human selfishness to create a mildly suspenseful cinematic cocktail. In fact, author John Bingham himself was rather like a character out of a Hitchcock film, having worked for England’s MI-5 security service, and ultimately serving as the inspiration for the George Smiley character in John le Carré’s popular series of Cold War mystery novels.

The DVD release of Married Life includes three alternate endings, which all flash-forward to the year 1966. In the first, Harry and Pat drive by a billboard for the digestive powder that Harry replaced with poison; distracted by the reminder of his near foray into murder, Harry crashes the car and Pat is killed; at the hospital, Harry asks Richard to bring him the same poison to kill himself, with Richard ending up being arrested for Harry’s murder. In the second ending, the film simply concludes with Harry taking the poison, and in the third, Harry and Pat drive by the billboard, with Harry flashing an enigmatic smile as they pass by.

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