“The talk will be of little else.”
Martin Scorsese’s lavish 1993 period piece, The Age of Innocence, is bursting with as much on-screen elegance as it is abounding in behind-the-scenes talent. Based on Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1920 novel of the same name, the film is gloriously realized by a consortium of some of modern cinema’s most renowned artists: legendary German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, the eminent composer Elmer Bernstein, editor extraordinaire Thelma Schoonmaker, title designers Elaine and Saul Bass, production designer Dante Ferretti, and costume designer Gabriella Pescucci. And there is also the script, co-written by Jay Cocks, who had given Scorsese Wharton’s book in the 1980s and would go on to help write two other long-gestating Scorsese passion projects, Gangs of New York (2002) and Silence (2016). All of these individuals have an inestimable influence on The Age of Innocence, but from frame one, the film dazzles as an exemplary, virtuosic example of “A Martin Scorsese Picture.”
With The Age of Innocence, perhaps unlike other Scorsese titles (save for something like 1995’s Casino, for example), the cinematic form is in precise harmony with the diegetic pose of the story itself. Set in the upper-crust milieu of 1870s New York City, the film overflows in superior extravagance. It’s a world wavering between the gaudy and the opulent, a world replete with fine china, elaborate floral arrangements, glittering jewels, and ostentatious interiors adorned with all manner of ornate furniture and distinguished art work. These features, these hieroglyphic symbols, as Scorsese has pointed out, indicate a society in which such artifice carries with it exorbitant connotations. It’s more than just a matter of propriety, of how one dresses or how one decorates their home; it’s all part of a “social code,” a specific cultural climate inundated with sumptuous color, refined fabrics, and the prolonged display that is a twelve-course meal served with painstaking exactitude. The objects that embellish The Age of Innocence, according to Geoffrey O’Brien, writing an essay for the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of the film, “almost crowd out people, while at the same time the brusqueness of the presentation undercuts any inclination merely to gawk at luxurious surfaces.” These things, he adds, “are here not so much to impress the audience as to impress the characters.”
It can be an overwhelming sensory experience. “My own first impression,” states O’Brien, “was of deliberate overload, of being given more to look at and listen to than could be easily processed…. This is rich stuff, but to some it will seem just set decoration.” In its own way, though, this visual-procedural spectacle is not entirely removed from the regalia and rituals of Scorsese’s cherished and much-evinced Catholicism; this is a similarly stifling world, a frustrating world of economic repression and sexist oppression. It’s the type of world that obsesses and consumes a man like Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), even though he so futilely tries to free himself from its strictures. Those parameters, it seems, are personified by his betrothed, May Welland (Winona Ryder), but his mostly dormant opposition, on the other hand, is embodied by May’s equally affluent cousin, the morally dubious Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who dares—gasp—to seek a divorce from her husband, a Polish aristocrat. Fueled and fascinated by Ellen’s tantalizing challenges to convention, Newland is quick to defend the Countess as innuendo threatens to ostracize her from this Victorian clique. At the same time, his romantic inclinations likewise gravitate toward Olenska, who goes from “Madame” to “Ellen” as Newland grows more informal, as his hand embraces hers, and their traditional reserve is first breached.
So much of this fundamental scenario is established in The Age of Innocence’s opening opera sequence, where the principal characters are introduced in a scene-setting framework that simultaneously suggests the film’s overriding tone, manner, protocol, and the penchant for petty gossip that compels much of the local drama. Befitting this painfully regimented etiquette, the characters behave in accordance to custom, physically expressing the social expectations set down upon them. As far as the performances go, the accomplishment of this presentation varies. In a much-matured turn compared to her preceding work, Ryder is, initially, the least successful of the primary three actors (even if she was the only one to receive an Oscar nomination for her work in the film). The “initially,” however, is because what starts as an insincerely demure characterization, apparently attributed to Ryder’s incompatibility with the material, gradually reveals itself to be considerably more interesting—and effective—as it correlates to May’s congeniality, a potentially contrived “negation,” as the film’s voiceover narration proposes, concealing her shrewd savvy. By comparison, Michelle Pfeiffer’s seductive, scandalous Ellen is perfectly attuned to the actress’s sensibilities and her performance is uniform and authentic throughout. Curiously, given his now deservedly sanctified standing as one of the preeminent actors of his or any other generation, it is Day-Lewis who appears uncomfortable with his bearing; he is stiff and graceless in both full-bodied movement and facial expression (though this, like the Ryder/May situation, may also reflect the unease of his character). The only one who appears completely free of any sort of affectation—delightfully so—is Miriam Margolyes as regional matriarch Mrs. Mingott, a candid, comical figure who is kept permanently seated and generally immobile due to the “burden of her flesh.”
Many of those responsible for the quality of The Age of Innocence are highlighted on the Criterion disc, which features interviews with Scorsese, Cocks, Ferretti, and Pescucci, as well as a 1993 documentary on the making of the film, which is noteworthy just to see Scorsese in action (and the 4K digital restoration more than does justice to the picture’s photographic flourish). While The Age of Innocence won an Academy Award for best costume design, and was additionally nominated for adapted screenplay, original score, and art direction, as well as Ryder’s nod, the film was widely regarded as a curious departure for Scorsese, something less glaring now in light of his remarkably diverse output since. Nevertheless, this discrepancy is discussed not only in these Criterion interviews, but also in O’Brien’s essay. Scorsese himself notes the superficial divergence, though he is also quick to point out the vital similarities between this and his more “typical” features: the aforementioned stress on conduct and appearance, equally seen in his gangland tales, but also the tension that arises when one dares to defy the norm of that given society—in The Age of Innocence as much as Goodfellas (1990), “If somebody has to be taken out,” says Scorsese, “they’re taken out.”
O’Brien declares Wharton’s novel to be about “deeds not done, or at least never talked about, emotions held in check, behavioral codes enforced by mute but irresistible consensus.” This, he writes, is far from the “extremes of emotional and physical violence” that Scorsese explored in Goodfellas and Cape Fear (1991). “In Wharton, the real action is internal, taking place within the consciousness of her protagonist.… The Age of Innocence is fundamentally a study in frustration…” Granted, physical ferocity and Scorsese do tend to go hand in hand, but to suggest his characters, even the violent ones, were not prone to checked emotions and internal conflict is to forget the intense psychological affliction of Harvey Keitel’s guilt-ridden Scorsese stand-ins from Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) and Mean Streets (1973), or Ellen Burstyn’s exasperated single mother in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), or Willem Dafoe’s anguished Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988); even someone like Robert De Niro’s disturbed Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) is a simmering boil of preliminary inhibition and emotive restraint. This may not last, and a character like Travis ultimately resorts to external vehemence as a means to an end, but the struggle to communicate, the unfulfilled needs, and the torment generated by a hostile society, all of which affect Newland, May, and Ellen, remain much the same. It was Scorsese, after all, who once described The Age of Innocence as the most violent film he ever made.
Despite its surface disparities, which do partly contribute to its status as one of Scorsese’s “most ambitious films,” as O’Brien states, The Age of Innocence certainly recalls other Scorsese ventures in formal terms, from the ambling camera movements, detaching from characters, caressing beautified walls, and snaking through baroque drawing rooms, to the progress of characters straight toward the camera, the saturation of color and light, and the axial cutting. In addition to direct-to-camera recitations, there is the familiar voiceover narration, provided by the illustrious Joanne Woodward and comprising the florid “heartbeat” of the script, according to Cocks. There is also an abundance of inspiration, from Scorsese’s enduring fascination with New York City, to painterly compositions lifted from the canvas of artists like Georges Seurat, to a fondness for cinema’s great costume dramas; the interview with Scorsese is a veritable textbook of classic titles making an impact on his own movie, films like Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) and The Leopard (1963). As he does so well, Scorsese infuses his film with elemental, tangible sensations—the flickering warmth of a fireplace, the soft chill of a snowfall, seasonal light as it peers through the thin window panes of an old, east coast residence—and yet the overt stylization of the picture blends seamlessly into a solid, settled narrative. Scorsese says he and his collaborators were experimenting with The Age of Innocence, but as Kent Jones observes when chatting his with fellow filmmaker, “I think the experiment turned out pretty well.”