Recently, I said about Baby Driver, "It's nice when you watch a movie and realize the people making the movie know what they are doing." I think we usually assume that Martin Scorsese always knows what he is doing. That doesn't mean I think all of his movies are great ... my favorites are Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and The Last Waltz, while I'm much less of a fan of Raging Bull than most people, and didn't like Casino at all. But most of the time, his movies are recognizably his movies, and he certainly knows what he's doing. He probably dips into the gangster mode too many times, but he is also willing to stretch beyond what we think of as Scorsese Movies. But even then, his influences are apparent. He is a master film historian, so Hugo isn't that odd in the end, with its bow to Méliès. He's Catholic ... of course he made The Last Temptation of Christ. But I admit I was surprised that he took on this Edith Wharton novel.
Whatever ... The Age of Innocence is as recognizably his as most of his films. The careful craft, the attention to detail, the often lush camerawork (director of photography is Michael Ballhaus), the great use of music (lots of Strauss, but he also works Enya into the mix and it's a perfect fit). The great editor Thelma Schoonmaker is here to do her magic (it's irrelevant in this case, but I can never resist this anecdote: when asked how a nice lady could work on such violent films, she replied, "Ah, but they aren’t violent until I’ve edited them.").
The interplay between the three main characters (Daniel Day-Lewis as Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess, and Winona Ryder as May) is subtle. The casting helps ... Ryder's relative youth makes May seem almost a trifle next to the others. Scorsese plays with point of view. He uses Joanne Woodward's narration to smooth Wharton's prose into the film, and early on, it feels like Scorsese is "taking the side" of Archer. Archer thinks he is in control ... even when society forces him to act in a way he wouldn't choose, he is choosing to be forced. The Countess is largely on the outside of the social circles of the film, and she knows it, so she provides a counterpoint, and Pfeiffer is great at showing how defiance exists alongside a desire for acceptance in the character. Meanwhile, May sneaks up on us, and when Archer realizes May has been controlling things all along, it's a blow to Archer, and helps the audience appreciate what Ryder has been up to.
I saw The Age of Innocence many years ago, liked it, and forgot it. Watching it again, I was more impressed, and I don't think I'll forget it again. #607 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.