The Age of Innocence (1993)
Written by Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese
Directed by Martin Scorsese
New York City has played a central role in almost every Scorsese film. I think Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Cape Fear were the only movies at this point that didn’t take place in and around NYC. Mainstream perceptions about Scorsese probably think he’s most concerned with a specific NYC era, but I’ve found he’s interested in the city at all stages of its development. Other than Temptation, this is the film that had occurred the furthest in the past in the director’s filmography. The movie adapts Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence, set when New York City had a very prevalent aristocracy with its own subculture of ritual & performance in public. This creates tension between our characters’ relationships and their inner thoughts, and it’s on that tightrope the whole film rests.
In the 1870s, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a lawyer newly engaged to Mae Welland (Winona Ryder). They seem happy enough, but waves are made when Mae’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska (Michele Pfeiffer) returns to the city. Ellen grew up with Newland, and they rekindle their old friendship. Ellen is being ostracized by the culture she was born into as she has left her husband and taken up with other men. Despite such scandal, Newland jumps to her defense in conversation and finds himself developing an attraction to her. He sees Mae as sweet but lacking ambition, happy to be in a part of high society. Ellen challenges conventions and seems unphased by the rumor-mongering behind her back. Newland isn’t sure which path he should take in life or which woman he should be with, but the society around him as rails he can’t seem to break from.
It’s fascinating to move from the overt toxic masculinity and violence of Scorsese’s other films to a movie that feels sedate on the surface. But that intensity is still there; it’s simply couched more than a picture like Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. Newland isn’t allowed to explode, and so he simmers, stuck in a place he doesn’t know how to escape. People in Newland’s world don’t speak the truth; they talk in codes or simply straight-up lie about what they think or feel. This proves to be the twist revealed about Mae in the third act of the movie as we realize she is not as oblivious as Newland thought she was; Mae simply played the social game so well he believed she was.
The Age of Innocence is actually very similar to Scorsese’s mob films in that they are about a particular subculture with hierarchies and rules. The people speak in code and spread rumors about what’s going on with other members of the social circles. This movie focuses on the Anglo-Saxon residents of New York, whose entire social structure will be mirrored in the Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants that rise in status over the next hundred years. Both Newland and the wise guys of Scorsese’s movies are trapped in these systems, and even when they find someone they love outside of the circle of power, they seem unable to escape. They were born into this and will undoubtedly die within it.
I was reminded of how good Daniel Day-Lewis is with this film. We easily remember his more bombastic roles, but these quieter characters who require more nuance are where he shines. Scorsese allows us into Newland’s head using his camera and switching to first-person perspectives. Especially during the opening opera sequence, we get to see how Newland takes in his surroundings. He feels unable to find a spot in the theater where he’s comfortable, moving around whenever he returns to that place. Further helping our understanding of this world is Joanne Woodward’s narration, standing in for Edith Wharton. While The Age of Innocence doesn’t necessarily feel like what you expect from Scorsese, thematically, it is right in line with most of his work.