Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence

Winona Ryder received her first nomination (and only Supporting nod) for her performance as May Welland in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. The film itself is definitely a departure from at least the Scorsese films I've seen, which are essentially his major films. It's a mannered, erotic costume drama, a genre that doesn't exactly shout 'Scorsese'. The film is about a few prominent New York families in the 1870s and the social rules they live by. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a wealthy lawyer is engaged to May Welland (Ryder), a beautiful young socialite, when May's cousin Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), an independent woman who lives her life outside of the rules of their society and is trying to get a 'scandalous' divorce begins to entice Archer and he finds himself conflicted between love and what is expected of according to these rules.

My thoughts on Winona's performance echo my thoughts on the entire film itself: she was pleasant and showed signs that she could have been more intriguing or have a hidden depth, but in the end proved nothing more than unimpressive and adequate. She performed what was required of the role -- for the majority of the film she had a generally genial, warm presence on-screen and was perfectly believable as an attractive and likable young woman. I believed that May really loved Newland, and her girlishness and naivety were utterly convincing. That was all that was required of her for the first hour or so of the film, and Ryder was fine at playing that part.

However, as the film progresses and May is supposed to become a little more suspicious of Newland and that first confrontation comes along, Ryder never seems to be able to push past the boundary to elevate her performance above just being fine. May is meant to know about the growing love and attachment between her cousin and fiance, or at least we are told so through narration. I just never sensed in Ryder's performance that she actually did. She just continued to glide along being agreeable and sunny. After her and Newland are actually married, Ryder does a good job at adding a little haughtiness into May, but not enough to make it Oscar worthy.

Yes, I could see an argument being made that Winona's performance is just subtle and I couldn't pick up on that in the film, because the narration makes it perfectly clear that May does have her suspicions and doubts about Newland. That is the main problem: Every interesting thing about Winona's performance was conveyed through narration. The only reason to doubt May's knowledge comes from Joanne Woodward's narration. While that is interesting in itself, that she could just be playing it completely straight to place even more doubt in our minds about the full extent of May's knowledge, I can't reward that with a nomination. Her final scene is the only one where Ryder gives even a hint of hidden knowledge, which ends up just making you wish she could have been that way the entire film, though I do feel it was Scorsese's choice for her to play it so straight.

Winona gives a perfectly okay performance in The Age of Innocence, and one that makes you think and ruminate on the character of May Welland's inner thoughts. Still, pleasantness is not awards material. The performance can't quite make it past the boundaries Scorsese and the script have placed around it, and it just makes you wish Winona had been given a little more freedom with the character, because the potential is there. 2/5 Wiests.

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