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The DefinitiveS
An ongoing series of in-depth essays and appreciations on the very best of cinema

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, and Jonathan Pryce
Rated: PG
Runtime: 132 min.

by Brian Eggert

The Definitives:
02/20/2007

Original Release Date:
09/17/1993

The Age of Innocence, one of director Martin Scorsese’s best but least acknowledged films, takes place in New York City in the later part of the nineteenth century. Scorsese’s career is filled with New York stories; films such as After Hours, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas all reveal the dark underbelly of the city. Here, Scorsese adapts Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel and acknowledges that The Age of Innocence, on the exterior, deals with romance, desire, material goods, and the importance of outward appearances. But the social rules and heavily regulated manners of New York aristocrats, as opposed to the viciousness of the city, represent a brutality in this film more visceral than any of Scorsese’s more physically violent pictures (the type of film for which Scorsese is best known). The violence, via what the film’s narrator dubs “arbitrary signs,” is a subtle set of unwritten rules enforced by expressly practiced social conventions, harshly dictating the lives of the late nineteenth century’s New York elite.

Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Booth Tarkington’s similarly-themed novel The Magnificent Ambersons, which won the Pulitzer in 1919, parallels Wharton’s in that both became telling films on the changing mise-en-scène of aristocratic life (Ambersons was adapted to film in 1941 by Orson Welles). What an enlightening experience it must have been to live in this setting; at least, that is what we think at first, but then we realize the grueling niche requirements of this society. There is a beauty and grace in this lifestyle as an objective observer, but most stories and sociological material written about the period after-the-fact dwell on its downfalls.

The title must be meant ironically: no one in this film is innocent. The characters are placed in an environment of repression, submission, and most of all, a behavioral decorum that limits what a person can say, do, or even feel. Marriage is a contract more vitally linking two important families than two lovers. Love is irrational and impractical in this world. There is no personal life outside of what affects the family. If an act of social indiscretion transpires, all sects of the respective family become involved. After all, family names survive, the individuals therein do not.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays young attorney Newland Archer, outwardly engaged to the young May Welland (Winona Ryder) for love, but we perceive love was only the offshoot, perhaps the illusion forced by an arranged coupling. Newland’s true passion is for the Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), a social outcast from Poland and May’s cousin. Olenska has returned to New York after a scandalous decision to leave her husband, personifying rebellion in her willingness to assert her own desires, thus all the more attractive to the reticent Archer.

Rumors of divorce and free romantic associations surround the Countess, and so she finds herself ostracized by the New York elite. Even before this scandal, Wharton writes she was “the cousin always referred to in the family as ‘poor Ellen Olenska,’” though she is hardly pathetic or pitiable. Dressing faintly different from everyone else, the Countess is perhaps not as fashionable and perhaps simply too foreign for aristocratic New Yorkers of the period. Either way, her off wardrobe serves to exemplify her status as an outsider. Olenska’s behavior excludes her even more, while social scathings of the era seem to have no effect on her. Like Wharton’s novel, Scorsese portrays Olenska’s rebellion delicately; the audience, as a result, finds Olenska admirable, if not dignified, compared to the shallow world of nineteenth century New York.

Indeed, Newland is a nonconformist too: he simply does not speak of his beliefs in public. He barely thinks of them, driven by his desire to remain a part of his society’s crucial etiquette. And the young May, representing the antithesis of nonconformity, is the epitome of proper. Given his engagement to her, Newland struggles to weigh the importance of social codes versus his personal desire. In the end, he ultimately abandons his desire and the Countess for May because it is the “correct” and “appropriate” thing to do. This decision destroys his chances for achieving his heart’s definition of happiness and love, but he assimilates to his society’s definitions thereof, which is something.

Film has staged several examples wherefrom audiences might learn these truths: the most comparable to Scorsese’s film is William Wyler’s 1949 adaptation of The Heiress. Both The Age of Innocence’s May Welland and The Heiress’ Catherine Sloper are pressed under the same thumb. Played by Ryder and Olivia DeHavilland respectively, both actresses portray a meek vulnerability, as if at any moment their world is going to swallow them up. Either a willing participant or a victim in their world, both are subject to emotional suffering as a result of social demands. Before she can be whole, Catherine, at once innocent and ignorant of how people view her (specifically her father), must come to the realization that her father despises her and that her supposed lover is a gold-digger. May is spared that trauma; Archer’s respect for social rules forces him to keep silent and complacent in their loveless marriage. Consequently, May avoids being confronted with the world, which she has never had the opportunity to explore.

Scrutinized and subjected to the community’s watchful eye, the film's characters carefully maintain their manners. The scandalous nature of the film is restrained—the audience must consider the setting, the characters, and their behavior carefully to fully grasp the violence therein. There are no explicit sexual affairs in The Age of Innocence; the film’s most “indecent” moment is a passionate scene in a carriage where Newland removes his glove and delicately undoes the buttons on the Countess Olenska’s glove. He touches his bare hand to hers and gently kisses her wrist, while the world outside the carriage seems to loom over their actions. Once the viewer accepts the film’s surroundings, a period when conformity is the only rule, the viewer realizes that regardless of the film’s PG rating, a simple scene depicting the kissing of a wrist in this public setting is nearly pornographic.

Considering this, The Age of Innocence stands as the more emotionally violent of Scorsese’s two pictures set in late nineteenth century New York (the other being Gangs of New York). The world Scorsese creates here provides scenes of horrible emotional regret and betrayal, more potent than anything bloody pictures such as Goodfellas or Casino could harbor. The romantic impact is much more tangible than the literal violence with which the director is traditionally associated.

Set inside some of the late nineteenth century’s richest New York homes, the emotional violence ironically plays a partner to splendor. Much of the film and its narration concentrates on art, lavish food, and material wealth. Scorsese’s camera cleverly spends more time on objects than on his characters’ faces. When someone enters a room, we are given only a glimpse of their façade; instead, Scorsese camera moves around the room, allowing the audience to take in the ornamentation, such as expensive, imported furniture and appropriate works of art.

The material environment is perhaps its most relevant character, not one detail insignificant but all of it superfluous. When touring the home of socialite Mrs. Mingott (Miriam Margolyes), the camera spotlights a painting that depicts two Native Americans as they restrain and prepare to scalp a young white woman. Within the ranks of Wharton’s New York aristocracy, a similar kind of attack occurs when someone like Olenska penetrates their territory; to keep marriages like Archer and May’s whole, the Olenskas must be dealt with. Scorsese dwells on the image to signify the persecution of the individual in the aristocratic circle by way of conformity—a metaphor for the picture’s greatest meaning.

So much material wealth is on display in the film that, at first, the viewer is almost sickened by it; we slowly conform ourselves to the surroundings as it goes on, but like Archer, we want to break out of that world. Because he is eventually forced into accepting conformity—his fate dictated by behavioral canons—the audience does too.

The miracle of this film is that for every moment Newland or Olenska gather the slightest reprieve from their social imprisoning, Scorsese allows his audience to sigh, to escape as his characters do, only to be aggressively thrust back into the reality of the social convention. We are Scorsese’s puppets, wisped around in emotional circles, just as Newland, Olenska, May, and the rest of late nineteenth century New York were by the period. While The Age of Innocence does not appear to flow within the director’s primary thematic stream, it offers depictions of brutality, cruelty, and violence as relentless as his most popular work. Take away the physical violence, guns, and foul language of Goodfellas and what do you have? You have a drama about conformity. The importance of conforming to the mafia’s set way of life is just as significant as conforming to late nineteenth century edicts of behavior, and for dissidents, the punishments are just as severe.