Viewer Guide: The Age of Innocence and Resistance

August 16, 2019 | 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.


This week’s classic is Resistance, a 2011 World War 2 drama directed by Amit Gupta.

Based on the 2007 novel by the same name by Owen Sheers, Resistance recounts an eerie alternative reality of World War 2: what if the D-Day invasion had failed, and Nazi Germany’s invasion of Europe had continued unchecked into Great Britain? Such an unthinkable outcome is the grim reality of a small town on the Welsh border, located in a magnificently scenic but remote valley. Andrea Riseborough stars as Sarah, a young farmer’s wife who awakens one morning to find that her husband Tom is missing, an unsettling discovery that is soon found to be the case with all the other local men of the village. With radio reports of the imminent arrival of German invaders, the women find the baffling development all the more unnerving. Why would a group of farmers—with crops and livestock to tend—simply vanish without a word, leaving them to face the Nazis alone? There must be a very good reason, with the women hoping against hope that their men will return. However, when the intruders do arrive to establish an observation post in the valley under the leadership of Captain Albrecht Wolfram—played Game of Thrones cast member Tom Wlaschiha—they waste no time in executing the male population they find in their path. Soon it’s clear that the Germans are looking for something else other than just resistors, and in particular Captain Albrecht seems to have an agenda of his very own—as well as a personal plan that ultimately includes Sarah.

Also featured in supporting roles are Michael Sheen as a British resistance leader, along with Iwan Rheon—another Game of Thrones veteran—who plays a covert resistance agent.

Filmed on location in the Black Mountains in southeast Wales at the insistence of Resistance’s Welsh author Owen Sheers, Sheers found his inspiration for his novel from his research on the British Auxiliary Units, an actual World War 2 era secret force trained in guerilla warfare should England ever find itself invaded by Nazi Germany. Taking a page from Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Sheers went on to imagine the unthinkable prospect of what might have transpired if the Nazis had not lost the war, creating a sobering wartime fable for our similarly sobering contemporary times. The threat of imminent invasion makes us painfully aware of how thin the veneer of civilization we like to think surrounds us actually is.

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