Picks and Pans Review: The Age of Innocence

updated 09/20/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/20/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder

The oh-so-civilized byways of 1870's New York society traversed in this painterly adaptation of Edith Wharton's masterwork are a far cry from the explosive mean streets of director Martin Scorsese's early movies. But the weapons—gossip, innuendo and social ostracism—are no less deadly.

Day-Lewis, a member of a fine old family, is engaged to Ryder, a member of an equally fine old family. Until now, he has encountered no problem more vexing than trying to convince his fiancée to advance the date of their wedding. Then he is reacquainted with Ryder's cousin (Pfeiffer), who has returned home to begin divorce proceedings against her spouse, a brute of a Polish count. Everyone has always thought of Pfeiffer as, well, not quite one of us. She did, after all, wear black to her coming-out party. But divorce? It is simply not done. Day-Lewis, pressed into service to keep Pfeiffer from disgracing the family, instead falls in love with her and now must choose between passion and duly.

Wharton was a novelist of interiors, both physical and emotional. While the movie delivers a full measure of the former—there are endless pans across walls of fine paintings and tables of beautifully arranged food and flowers—the latter is lacking. The fact is, The Age of Innocence is inhabited by characters either unwilling or unable to take action, a difficult thing to dramatize and a problem never resolved in Scorsese's adaptation. He opts, instead, for distractions and devices—for example, having his players recite the contents of letters and telegrams directly into the camera. It's a technique that distances the audience from the story almost as much as the busy camerawork and the narration (by Joanne Woodward).

Neither Pfeiffer, who looks as though she just stepped off a Renoir canvas, nor Day-Lewis get much beyond one-dimensional, muted portrayals. Ryder, who shines as a rigidly conformist society matron, provides the film's most quietly chilling moment, in which she contrives a story that dooms the relationship between her now husband and her cousin. Best is Miriam Margolyes as the family matriarch. "People are going to be expecting a funeral," she snorts after her quick recovery from a stroke. "And now they'll have to be entertained." (PG)

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