An extraordinarily sumptuous piece of filmmaking, "The Age of Innocence" represents an impeccably faithful adaptation of Edith Wharton's classic novel, which is both a blessing and a bit of a curse.

An extraordinarily sumptuous piece of filmmaking, “The Age of Innocence” represents an impeccably faithful adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic novel, which is both a blessing and a bit of a curse. Director Martin Scorsese has met most of the challenges inherent in tackling such a formidable period piece, but the material remains cloaked by the very propriety, stiff manners and emotional starchiness the picture delineates in such copious detail. Despite all the talent involved, this portrait of an impossible romance set in the upper reaches of New York society in the 1870s has a finite audience, more or less defined by the $ 25 million to $ 30 million grosses achieved by such tony releases as “Howards End” and “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Even if it does that well, this prestige entry, with its reported $ 40 million-plus price tag, will be a long way from break-even. Film premieres tonight at the Venice Film Festival.

For sophisticated viewers with a taste for literary adaptations and visits to the past, there is a great deal here to savor. The sets, costumes, cinematography, music and attention to the mores and customs of the time are almost unimaginably luxurious and evocative, giving evidence of tremendous research and a feel of extreme authenticity. The screenplay adaptation is intelligent and economical, and the casting and acting, from the leads to the smallest roles, are as fine as one could want.

But it is difficult to picture general audiences warming up to these representatives of the old ruling class, whose constricted emotional lives Wharton brilliantly illustrated in her 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Present rendition (Irene Dunne and John Boles starred in a forgotten 1934 RKO version) begins with a lovely floral and lace title sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass, then plunges the viewer into the hotbed of high society — the opera, where the real action is in the boxes, not onstage. The focus of most lorgnettes this evening is Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), a beautiful American recently returned from Europe after leaving her aristocratic husband.

Ellen is a cousin of lovely young May Welland (Winona Ryder), who is just now announcing her engagement to socially prominent lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis). Although related to a distinguished family, Ellen is much whispered about due to the free-thinking ideas she appears to have acquired in Europe, and because she is rumored to have lived with her male secretary.

In this world of formal balls, dinners and other ritualized social engagements, propriety is all, and Countess Olenska doesn’t conform to the letter of New York’s standards. But Newland, who at moments dares to express unorthodox ideas about acceptable behavior for women, defends her and, with the help of his mother, orchestrates her acceptance into society.

But just as he is urging May to move up their wedding date, Newland becomes entranced by the bewitching Ellen, who is so tantalizingly different from everyone else in his sphere. With the excuse of advising her legally on her impending divorce, he is able to call on her frequently, and when he finally reveals his feelings, it’s almost too much for both of them.

The real subject of the film is Newland’s adhering to his prescribed role rather than following his heart, and while this is apparent, the emotion is, crucially, not deeply felt or conveyed despite the couple’s furtive meetings in the film’s second half. The obsessive central love story here is repressed on all levels, which serves to parch the film more than intensify it. Nor does a rather flat coda, set in Paris years later, deliver the intended poignance.

The picture’s other subject is the re-creation of an era, and in this the film is almost overwhelmingly successful. The repeated close-ups of 1870s place settings, food preparation, cigar trimmers, fabrics, clothes, paintings and decor, to the accompaniment of appropriate music, bespeaks an immersion in time and place that some may feel goes beyond the necessary to the fanatical (but which actually constitutes a pleasure in its own right).

In both their exquisite appearance and sheer quantity, Dante Ferretti’s production design and Gabriella Pescucci’s costume design are practically beyond compare, and Michael Ballhaus surpasses himself with his resplendent widescreen cinematography.

In his attempt to define an era through a thwarted romance set among the trappings of the very rich, Scorsese conjures up the cinematic worlds of Max Ophuls, notably “Madame de … ,” and Luchino Visconti, particularly “Senso” and “The Leopard.” For a director previously associated mostly with the violence of the lower classes of New York, it’s a notable attempt to stretch, and admirable in many ways.

Day-Lewis cuts an impressive figure as Newland, and it may be that he is playing something of a thankless part: a character who invariably makes decisions that disappoint.

The two principal female roles are superbly filled. For any actress to make the transition from Cat Woman to Ellen Olenska would be impressive, and that Pfeiffer succeeds here as she did in her last film is the most conclusive proof yet of her widening talents. Ryder is also perfect as the child-woman with a more tenacious instinct than her retiring manner would indicate.

A great roster of superior actors fills out the supporting roles, and seeing the likes of Alec McCowen, Sian Phillips, Richard E. Grant, Miriam Margolyes, Geraldine Chaplin, Mary Beth Hurt, Norman Lloyd, Michael Gough, Jonathan Pryce and, in her last role, the late Alexis Smith pop up throughout reps a connoisseur’s delight.

Scorsese brings great energy to what could have been a very static story, although his style is more restrained and less elaborate than usual. Script by the director and former film critic Jay Cocks judiciously trims the story down to manageable length while retaining its essential elements.

Elmer Bernstein’s score is full-bodied and richly romantic, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is very finely tuned and the scene transitions are notably varied. This is no doubt one of the few films ever to credit a table decoration consultant, etiquette consultant and chef for 19th-century meals, and these credits are very well earned.

The Age of Innocence

Production

A Columbia release of a Cappa/De Fina production. Produced by Barbara De Fina. Co-producer, Bruce S. Pustin. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay, Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese, based on the novel by Edith Wharton.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor; Super 35 widescreen), Michael Ballhaus; editor, Thelma Schoonmaker; music, Elmer Bernstein; production design, Dante Ferretti; art direction, Speed Hopkins; set decoration, Robert J. Franco, Amy Marshall; costume design, Gabriella Pescucci; sound (Dolby), Tod Maitland; special visual effects, Illusion Arts, Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor; associate producer-assistant director, Joseph Reidy; casting, Ellen Lewis. Reviewed at Sony Studios screening room, Culver City, Aug. 26, 1993. (In Venice Film Festival -- non-competing.) MPAA rating: PG. Running time: 136 min.

With

Newland Archer - Daniel Day-Lewis Ellen Olenska - Michelle Pfeiffer May Welland - Winona Ryder Mrs. Mingott - Miriam Margolyes Larry Lefferts - Richard E. Grant Sillerton Jackson - Alec McCowen Mrs. Welland - Geraldine Chaplin Regina Beaufort - Mary Beth Hurt Julius Beaufort - Stuart Wilson Mrs. Archer - Sian Phillips Mr. van der Luyden - Michael Gough Mrs. van der Luyden - Alexis Smith Letterblair - Norman Lloyd Monsieur Riviere - Jonathan Pryce Janie Archer - Carolyn Farina Ted Archer - Robert Sean Leonard Narrator - Joanne Woodward

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