An Appreciation – The Age of Innocence
“The most violent film I ever made”
That’s a bold statement coming from Martin Scorsese, given that much of his work involves characters committing extremely violent acts. But in The Age of Innocence (1993), the violence he references is not of a physical nature. You won’t find blood splatter here. The intensity and turmoil are suppressed within – it is emotional and psychological. Upon closer examination, that inner violence may hold true to Scorsese’s statement. In a way, it might actually be worse. Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle, and Tommy DeVito all had avenues to express their frustrations and rage. The characters that populate this film do not have that luxury.
At first glance, the choice to depict 1870s New York aristocracy might seem like a left turn for the director. He adapts Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel (with co-writer Jay Cocks). The fact the translation works so well is a testament to both Wharton’s prose and Scorsese’s range. We are introduced to a high-class world dominated by social customs and rigid traditions. There is an unwritten code with how everything operates – a structure founded on wealth and the appearance of nobility. Rumor and gossip spread among a hierarchy of people who have little else to do. Marriages are treated like business transactions, and status is signified by materialism. Early on, a character walks inside of a home decorated like a truncated palace, weaving their way through a labyrinth of drawing rooms stuffed with paintings, plants, draperies, and antique furniture. Simply wanting to get from one end of the house to the other involves having to succumb oneself to a gross display of affluence.
Why would Scorsese be drawn to this world? This takes the look and feel of any other period drama, akin to the Merchant-Ivory films. But the brilliance of Scorsese’s vision is in the details. He examines the inner workings of this society, narrowing in on the ritualistic, even tribal mechanics. The Narrator (Joanne Woodward) guides us through every facet with precision. Just as Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) went into the aspects of mob life in Goodfellas (1990), or how Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) described the ins and outs of his profession in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), so too does the narrator here. It’s well known that Scorsese grew up in an Italian American community and had a deep connection with the Catholic Church. That proximity to tradition – participating in long held formalities – is the very essence that runs through The Age of Innocence. When characters meet with the heads of their society for support, it is the exact same as low level gangsters asking their bosses for their blessing.
In the middle of this world is Newland Archer, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in what might be his most underrated performance (if there is such a thing). Newland walks and talks like the ideal member of the privileged class. He is a working lawyer, a member of a respectable family, has financial security, and is engaged to the lovely yet sheltered May Welland (Winona Ryder). Their marriage would bring together two prominent families, boosting them up the social ladder. Everything seems to be going Newland’s way, but inside he is burdened with enough self-awareness to know how trapped he is. He is on the precipice of long-lasting conformity, fully aware that the rest of his life has been preplanned with a blandness he finds intolerable.
Everything changes with the arrival of May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ellen was once childhood friends with Newland. She has returned from abroad carrying rumors of a failed marriage to a Polish count. Immediately, we see Newland becoming drawn to Ellen. He sees in her an independent spirit that goes against long held social conventions. She pushes against the unwritten rules, questioning why things must be done a certain way and why the appearance of refinement takes precedence over one’s true feelings. It is this persona that Newland falls for, and in return she falls in love with him. And yet, the tragedy of their romance is that it is the opposite of everything they have been taught. Even worse, they both know it.
Newland and Ellen’s relationship is an unconsummated love story. Because they never get the opportunity to express their feelings together, the passion between them is all the more poignant. Their bond is shared through ideas and suggestion instead of simple physical intimacy. This might be Scorsese’s most erotic film, given how much the tension is raised between the two. Notice how characters speak around what they are truly thinking – small chit chat is a façade for deep seeded emotions. When Newland and Ellen are together, the way they glance to and away from one another tells a story separate from what is being discussed. They try so hard to suppress what they really want that even the smallest gesture feels overwhelming. The buildup is so taut that when Newland takes a gamble by kissing the inside of Ellen’s wrist, the effect is the near equivalent of a sex scene.