Director Martin Scorsese has made no secret about growing up in what he calls “a closed society.” Early years spent looking out the window of a Little Italy apartment into scenes of mid-20th century Manhattan—and at the kids he couldn’t play with due to asthma 0r the streetwise guys who would inform future gangster pictures—made him the storyteller he is today. His passion for cinema and for the Catholic Church, his two sanctuaries as a sickly child, were informed by this distinctly New York and working class Italian-American background.
His father Charles Scorsese teaching him how to carry oneself in that closed society, such as going to a neighborhood restaurant, influenced the scenes of Robert De Niro hanging out with Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets (1973), or Joe Pesci turning cold with Ray Liotta in Goodfellas (1990). Yet too often moviegoers, and even some film critics, are quick to reduce the auteur to only those handful of movies—violent crime pictures where Pesci’s same character is executed on a basement floor for stepping out of line and breaking his society’s rules.
But Scorsese’s passions are so much wider than that, even if the films he chases them in remain almost uniformly intimate, obsessive… and cruel. In fact, one of his best pictures is the gorgeous, and utterly merciless, The Age of Innocence. Released 30 years ago, the exquisitely realized costumed drama about repressed desires and devastating self-sacrifice was likely not what audiences expected as the director’s follow-up to Goodfellas and Cape Fear (1991). It failed to find a major audience at the box office then and to this day goes regularly overlooked among his filmography. Nonetheless, The Age of Innocence remains a sumptuous triumph for the director and co-writer (he collaborated with Jay Cocks on the screenplay). It’s also among Scorsese’s most harrowing visions of a closed society and the toll it extracts on those who step out of line.
As he told Charlie Rose in 1993, The Age of Innocence is “refined violence. It’s emotional and psychological violence. Just as powerful and just as deadly as Joe Pesci getting shot in Goodfellas.” Perhaps even more so, if only because the Gilded Age drama is about how every one of Daniel Day-Lewis’ friends and family pressure him to place the veritable muzzle against his own head. And then he pulls the trigger.
Adapted faithfully and stylishly from Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel of the same name, The Age of Innocence pulls from Wharton’s sly prose (sometimes literally with passages of the book being narrated by Joanne Woodward’s voiceover), as well as Wharton’s vivid memories of the so-called Gilded Age of the 1870s—a time where the greatest concentration of wealth in American history threatened to sink Manhattan beneath the waves due to its sheer vastness. Consider that Cornelius Vanderbilt, the patriarch of the then-richest family in the world, amassed more wealth when adjusted for inflation than Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or Elon Musk.
Yet the world inhabited by these elite was not about gauche excess or golden toilets; it was meant to be dignified and gentle, a society derived from exceedingly good breeding, refinement, and chivalrous honor. Day-Lewis’ Newland Archer holds all of those virtues dear to his heart when the film opens on the eve of the gentleman attorney’s plan to announce his engagement to the beautiful and innocuous May Welland (Winona Ryder). May lives a sheltered life, which her fiancé mistakes for an innocent obliviousness. But it is his underestimation of May which makes the presence of her cousin the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) so overwhelming for Archer.
As her title suggests, Ellen has achieved what most American blue bloods can only enviously covet: She is European nobility by way of marrying an unseen Polish count some years back. It’s an ironic inversion of the genre Scorsese is best known for, too. While Don Corleone was eager to see his sons achieve American legitimacy as senators or governors, these titans of American capitalism are even thirstier to return to Old World airs and titles of “duke” and “vicomte.”
Alas, Ellen’s arrival back to New York also belies her precarious position. She has scandalously abandoned her abusive and philandering husband and returned to her family home seeking a divorce and reclamation. But her beloved New World of supposed freedom and democracy is just as rigid as the old one, and as Newland and Ellen slowly fall in love, the film becomes about their mutual naiveté in thinking they could ever achieve any sort of happiness. After all, their daily contact is because Newland’s law firm is pressuring him to drive Ellen back to Europe and a loveless marriage.
The plot of The Age of Innocence is a tale of unrequited passion and a tumultuous affair carried about between Newland and Ellen, even after he’s married her cousin—all while the pair never consummate the attraction beyond a handful of hopeless and despairing kisses. But what makes The Age of Innocence so vitally alive, and brutally mean-spirited, is Scorsese’s attention to the details of Wharton’s lost world and his care at occupying it with all the affection and authenticity as Henry Hill’s nights at the Copacabana.
The film knowingly picks up on the opening night of a new opera season in New York. Yet while Scorsese begins the picture by studying the delicate beauty of the opera singers’ vocal performance and costumes, they’re not the centerpiece of the scene. Rather the film introduces the terror of Newland Archer’s life before he even knows he’s in a horror film.
High society is the stage, and the elite are the actors in it. The first character to speak a line of dialogue, Richard E. Grant’s Larry Lefferts, watches the audience instead of the stage, spying through his glasses like a predator searching out prey. In crossfade edits courtesy of longtime Scorsese collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, the sequence plays like a more leisurely, yet just as bloodthirsty, portrait of the ringside spectators in Raging Bull. Like this boxing movie, we are witnessing a bloodsport, and as Larry exclaims “Well!” upon spotting Newland sitting next to his unannounced blushing bride-to-be, the bell for the first round has been rung.
The sequence that most knowingly reveals the barbarity of these people, however, occurs later when we meet Ellen and May’s wealthy matriarch and aunt, Granny Manson Mingott (Miriam Margoyles), whose flightiness belies an indefatigable iron will.
On the first floor of the mansion where Granny Manson nests—with the grand dame being too voluminous in her luxury to lift herself up the stairs anymore—the walls are decorated exclusively with the portraits of the dogs she’s owned and adored throughout her life; not the relatives she controls and domineers. As the scene progresses, the director and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’ camera reveals less interest in characters’ small talk than in exploring beyond the confines of grandmama’s domain. A steadicam patiently ascends the staircase that Granny’s legs have long abandoned, observing traditional works of the Hudson River Valley aesthetic that cover nearly every inch of wood paneling. They’re souvenirs of the wilderness New York society long ago conquered and supplanted. Meanwhile at the highest step rests a reigning masterwork: a painting that glorifies the violence from whence this world sprung.
Two Native American warriors are depicted as preparing to scalp a young white maiden crouched on her knees, pleading for her life beneath their axes. The image is an encapsulation of this world, a glossy and romanticized polish which has been wiped across the brutality from which all of New York’s money, power, privilege, and even geographical location has emerged. Only now, centuries on, the carnage has been turned into something so beautiful and harmless that it’s been all but forgotten, left in the past to be unobserved by the corpulent descendants whose privilege and sense of authority derives from an ugliness they’ve intentionally left out of reach and out of mind.
It’s also worth noting what Woodward/Wharton’s voiceover narration says during this tour of the home. The narrator acknowledges the sweet commandeering power of grandmama, a woman who is “content simply for life and fashion to flow northward to her door, and to anticipate eagerly the union of Newland Archer with her granddaughter May. In them, two of New York’s best families would finally, and momentously, be joined.” And if necessary, the merging of interests will be carried out with all the grace and love of a tomahawk to the skull.
This is why The Age of Innocence is such a singular and devastating distillation of Scorsese’s muses. He fetishizes the white gloves used by butlers as they serve the correct type of fish, and how the proper (and ironically golden) piece of silverware is selected before each course. But it’s all a facade for a society as unbending as the one he grew up in.
When Ellen arrives home, she insists naively that New York means “freedom,” but when May’s party for Ellen is snubbed by every respectable family on the island, Wharton’s narration again takes center stage, stating, “We all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world. The real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs. Archer knew these signs. They were not subtle and they were not meant to be. They were more than a simple snubbing. They were an eradication.”
On the word “eradication,” a montage ends with Pfeiffer looking directly into the camera before her entire face is obliterated by the fading color red—the color of passion. The only emotion these people still know is the thrill of control, and how to wield that power like a Viking. Newland spares Ellen, at least in that moment, by pleading her case before the van der Luydens (Michael Gough and Alexis Smith), the Vanderbilts in all but name. It’s no different than Liotta’s Henry begging Paulie (Paul Sorvino) not to whack him after getting caught selling coke on the streets. Scorsese even picks out Wharton’s line about how “Archer appealed to their exquisitely refined sense of tribal order.”
It is only a momentary reprieve, though, and as Newland and Ellen get closer, fixating on stolen moments via holding hands, or Archer helping with the Countess’ coat, it becomes all so desperate that when they finally do collapse into each other’s arms, they appear more like prisoners who’ve abandoned all hope than lovers. In the end, Archer must marry May and accept an extravagant honeymoon that ends not on a classic, rounded Hollywood iris, but stark lines of black fading into each side of the frame. They’re pinning Archer in with his wife. He’s caught between prison bars and his jailor.
Of course the other tragedy is Newland is oblivious to his wife’s cunning throughout their long marriage, even as he slowly becomes aware that he’s been played a fool among his society friends and acquaintances. It slowly dawns on him that they all believe he and the Countess Olenska are having an affair (and emotionally, they are), yet even when realizing his wife thinks this too, he still condescends to the sweet creature, perceiving her calm serenity to be “a negation of depth.”
In this way, she is a better smiling assassin than any of the tough guys who got to whack Pesci in various Scorsese joints. Archer is incapable of recognizing why his wife wears her wedding satins for the first time in several years until he later learns that on the same day, she convinced her cousin to return to Europe and her abusive husband by lying to Ellen that she is pregnant. By the time Newland realizes everyone is now against him, including Ellen, it’s far too late. He’s already been executed.
As he sits at a fancy dinner among friends afterward, we are told, “Archer saw all the harmless people as a band of quiet conspirators, with himself and Ellen the center of their conspiracy. He guessed himself to have been for months the center of countless, silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears. He understood that, somehow, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and he knew that now the whole tribe had rallied around his wife. He was a prisoner in the center of an armed camp.”
May’s efficiency as the general of that camp is on display when the reigning van der Luydens do not even allow Archer a sincere goodbye with his great love, whisking Ellen away from him to a coach to take her to the ship headed toward her own bondage. Conversely, May remains as sweet as ever when she blows out the last flickering hope of happiness in Archer. Several weeks later, when he attempts to tell her he would like to travel to India, or perhaps Japan, she reveals she actually is pregnant. There is no escape.
After that, Archer’s life is permanently confined to the room where May lowered the boom on her husband and his romantic fantasies. We learn it is also that same room where their first son was christened, where another boy took his first steps, and where their daughter announced her engagement to a chap Newland believes to be duller than May. It is even the room where Archer genuinely grieved for the wife he never loved after we learn of May’s passing.
Indeed, the final agony of The Age of Innocence is a denouement set long after the rarified moment of its title. During the final scenes, the 20th century has come, and Newland and May’s son Teddy (Robert Sean Leonard) has a thriving business of his own and is able to convince his father to join him for a boys’ trip to Paris. There, Newland is given a final chance to live in a new age when Teddy invites him to visit the private apartments of the revered Countess Olenska… yet Archer declines. He has no ties or obligations left to a now dead world, but when pressed about why he cannot see her, all Newland can muster is: “Just say I’m old-fashioned. That should be enough.”
He would rather live with his romantic fantasies, as illustrated by Scorsese repeating the glimmering shimmer of a lens flair across the camera, echoing an earlier sequence at a seaside vista where Newland watched Ellen from afar, unable to allow himself the strength to go up to her and speak candidly. He instead preferred observing her from a distance, like one of his paintings, while also observing the expectations of a society that killed him… including long after this society had also expired.
He’s a product of his time and place; a time and place he let destroy him with a smile. It is the epitome of a Scorsese reverie.