“You gave me my first glimpse of a real life. Then you asked me to go on with the false one.”
Martin Scorsese said once that he considers “The Age of Innocence,” his 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about forbidden love and the rigidness of New York aristocracy in the 1870’s, to be his most violent film. That’s saying something for the man behind the blood-soaked masterpieces such as “Goodfellas” and “Taxi Driver.” What Scorsese is referring to is emotional violence, which there was plenty of in New York high society at the time, unwilling to break free from the bonds of European expectations.
But in this story of forbidden love, guilt and trying and failing to break free from a mob-like social system, Scorsese crafts one of his greatest films, one that actually fits into his filmography like a finely powdered glove even though it looks like a Masterpiece Theatre-aping outlier on first glance. Why was Scorsese the perfect choice for this material? Because he understands how high and low classes of people, particularly in New York, abuse and collide with each other. There isn’t a syllable of profanity, a single drop of blood or bullet fired in this film, which works as an uptown companion piece with “Goodfellas.” But these unpaved streets can be just as mean.
Newland Archer (the peerless Daniel Day-Lewis) seems to have it all figured out. He’s a successful lawyer and he’s about to be married to May Welland (Winona Ryder) the perfectly pleasant heiress to another branch of the aristocratic tree. He is content to spend the rest of his days immersed in his countless books, trips to the opera house, annual balls and the streams of gossip that make teenage girls look infinitely respectful of discretion in comparison. But a pale, blue-eyed lightning bolt is about to strike this small, impenetrable universe in the person of Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer in her finest hour), who has just fled Europe and the tyrannical count she married in the hopes of being welcomed back by her family, which of course sends ripples of scandal through the upper crust. Ellen is a free thinker, with a clear idea of what she wants with an admittedly naive understanding of how her behavior affects her family.
Newland is instantly captivated by her; we get a sense that he’s growing tired of the minutia that dominates the lives of this aristocracy, and Ellen is the manifestation of everything he wants to express but can’t. Ellen lights a romantic fire in him that May, however innocent and safe she may be, does not. His attraction to her is organic, not another piece of familial business.
This may sound like “First World Problems: 1870s Edition.” And one may wonder why a director who makes movies about criminal underworlds and unchecked male aggression would be so interested in the delicate business Wharton’s novel dealt with. But the brilliance of Scorsese’s adaptation, which he co-wrote with Jay Cocks, is that this story fits his auteurist characteristics perfectly. The aristocracy isn’t far removed from the Mob families in “Mean Streets” or “Goodfellas.” They distrust outsiders, they are lorded over by their own version of the Five Families, with Mrs. Mingot (played by the great Miriam Margolyes) as a corpulent Don Corleone who is the perfect grandmother on the surface but is utterly ruthless underneath the jewelry and pomeranians. Their stuffy adherence to being proper does little to mask their lack of mercy when it comes to radical practices like divorce, speaking out of turn, etc.
In that way, Newland Archer isn’t too far off from Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” They may be polar opposites in personality and temperament, but they are both men who slowly realize that the world that protects them is indeed a prison. Henry gets out due to selfishness and saving his own ass, but Newland’s awakening is spurred on by his burning desire for Ellen, which begins as a curious attraction and morphs into all-consuming love that consumes his tempered nature, like nothing before. “The Age of Innocence” isn’t a spiritual cousin of “Goodfellas” just in theme, but also in form. The latter film is often cited as Scorsese’s stylistic showpiece, but “Age” is just as stylish, with Michael Ballhaus’ camera swirling and observing like an unseen character, with splashes of yellow and the trademark blood red enveloping the screen to create a film that transcends any and all period-piece stereotypes to create something truly alive, perhaps the most emotionally expressive filmmaking Scorsese has ever done. It’s got all the trademarks; the camera glides like a dancer over every scene, Thelma Schoonmaker’s peerless editing creates a whirlwind of imagery, Elmer Bernstein’s moving score has an air of tragedy underneath those groaning cellos and in a masterstroke of narrative technique, there is voice-over narration from Joanne Woodward, who drops in and reads passages from the book, adding to the foreignness of this world, and how vital it is for Newland and Ellen to make their own way through it.
The narration could’ve been a deadly gambit, but voiceover perfectly suits Scorsese’s style, with his use of fragmented editing and montage. It’s reminiscent of the narration in Orson Welles’ “Magnificent Ambersons” in how it captures the melancholy. But for all the bravura flourishes and subtle wit with how Scorsese and Wharton make fun of the painfully trivial dinner conversations these people have, this is a story of three people on different sections of the complacency spectrum. Day-Lewis (the best actor alive, in my opinion) slowly builds Newland’s disregard for his universe. He never has to raise his voice to get across the guilt, frustration and aching sadness that builds up within him. Subtle gestures define him; the emptiness in his smile whenever he is intimate with May contrasts with the passion in his eyes whenever he is with Ellen. Day-Lewis can disappear into an exaggerated character better than anyone, but his naturalistic approach is the antithesis of his more operatic performances in “Gangs of New York” and “There Will Be Blood,” and all the more effective for it. We see a man who starts to feel trapped by the oversized ballrooms and perfectly tailored suits.
It’s understandable how one would be willing to throw a life away for the Countess Olenska (the prototypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl), especially in this environment. Pfeiffer is brilliant in capturing what is alluring about Ellen; her independence, her amusement over how pointless this lifestyle really is, her disinterest in making sure she has everyone’s approval. But she also nails what is flawed about this woman; the aristocracy game is rigged, especially with women seeking a divorce, forcing Ellen to depend on those who despise her for financial support, especially when her estranged husband makes attempts at buying her back. She’s like Harvey Keitel’s epileptic girlfriend in “Mean Streets;” kept in chains by the ruling party because of her differences. At first she tries to resist Newland’s pining, out of respect for her cousin May. But she can’t resist, as she finally has someone who is just as self-aware and beyond the New York environment as she is. Their passion finally manifests physically, in a beautiful scene in a claustrophobic carriage where Newland takes one of her cloves off and gently kisses her exposed hand; it’s the most erotic display of affection these two can share under these circumstances. Newland asks her to run away with him where gossip and propriety mean nothing, to which she responds “Where is that country?” Newland thinks he can ease his passion for Ellen by moving up his wedding date with May, but he knows deep down this may be fruitless.
Those watching this for the first time may be put off by Ryder’s performance as May, but as the story unfolds you realize how deliberate the more annoying qualities about May; her ever-present smile, her disinterest in anything outside of her immediate worldview, the overbearing wide-eyed innocence that emanates from how she speaks, looks, etc., really are. Newland and May tell themselves their marriage isn’t arranged, but this is a fool’s errand. Newland definitely cares for May, and he tries to leave her out of his personal turmoil. But May isn’t as dumb as she looks; she’s a product of this restrictive environment, and as we learn that May has a final turn of the screw that ruins Newland’s dreams for freedom and reveals a near Machiavellian cunning. Ryder’s performance grows in power as this 1% Mafia basically “whacks” this romantic dissent, underlining the cold irony of the film’s title.
All of this culminates in one of the best scenes in any Scorsese movie; an older Newland is in Paris with his oldest son Ted (Robert Sean Leonard), who is about to be married. He tells Newland that before May died, she told him that the children were safe with Newland, “once when she asked you to, you gave up the thing you wanted most.” Newland responds simply: “She never asked me.” This emotional crescendo is underlined by the final shot, with Newland once more walking away from the possibility of true love, on that overcast street in Paris.
“The Age of Innocence” is one of the great modern romances because unlike the virulent sickness that is Nicholas Sparks, this is a tragic love story with adult concerns, that isn’t wrapped up in bromides or cheap tear-jerking. This film is as vibrant and emotionally bruising as Martin Scorsese’s more celebrated work because it too is a collision between desire and duty, an expose of an idealic world that is only idealic if you leave your beating heart at the door, and gunfire is replaced by whispers.