#5 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
My reaction to Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence reminds me a lot of my reaction to David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice. Both are great works by master filmmakers that have been overshadowed by more well-known films, but they both prove to me, definitively, of the greatness of the filmmakers in question. There are filmmakers who aren’t that great who end up making a single film that fires on every cylinder, but then there’s Scorsese having made his name with a particular type of modern and masculine filmmaking making an expert and restrained adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel. He filmed it like he films all of his movies, with active, roving cameras and energetic editing, but he also manages to capture the restrained spirit of the main character, Newland Archer, and his emotional journey perfectly.
That being said, the movie still carries many of the hallmarks of Scorsese’s career and interests. It’s set in New York in the 1870s. It is about a closed society with a strict set of rules of behavior that must be followed. It’s about a man who wants something but can’t have it because of those rules. All of this is reflected in his previous work. I was reminded mostly of a small moment from Mean Streets when Harvey Keitel’s Charlie wants to date the black dancer at Tony’s club, but he stands her up because his friends would look down on him for the choice. It’s a similar situation that Newland Archer finds himself in when he meets the unfortunate cousin, Ellen, to his fiancée, May.
Newland and May are from two of the most prominent families in New York at the time. Ensconced firmly in the ritual of high society, they are products of a system, looked at to fulfil roles rather than lead lives. Newland is outwardly obedient to this system, but he inwardly questions it, never able to share his challenge with anyone, especially not the innocent naïf, May. Ellen, though, was married to a Polish count who ended up treating her terribly and preferring the company of prostitutes to his own wife. Separated from her husband and buried in scandal, she returns to New York to try and figure out her next steps. Newland uses the opportunity of the public announcement of his engagement to May to help provide support to Ellen at the same time, putting two New York families behind the scandal plagued countess instead of just one.
Ellen is different from the rest of the society that surrounds Newland. Wizened by the hurts she suffered at the hands of her husband. She wants a divorce to separate her completely from the count, but while the legislature may treat divorce kindly society does not. She will be outcast as a defiled woman. The family wants Newland, an attorney and soon to be member of the family, to convince Ellen of the error of such a course, an action that Newland dutifully follows through on despite his obvious affection for the woman. He’s not yet married to May, and she could be free of her husband. He even, at one point early before he falls for Ellen, accepts the idea of eloping with May, burning all convention just to be with the woman he loves. Then, when presented with the opportunity to burn convention to be with this new woman who ignites real passion within him, he wilts at the idea and does not follow through despite what his heart wants.
The movie’s story is about a year of Newland’s life as he tries to balance his heart with his obligations to the stifling system into which he was bred. If he were to cast aside everything for Ellen, not only would he be cast out from society, but his mother and sister would suffer as well. He’s also trapped by his promise to wed May, his insistence on a quick engagement, and, soon enough, the wedding itself. He still wants to be close to her, and his passion for the woman he can’t have blinds him to the conventions he’s breaking, giving the game away to those around him.
The movie is narrated by Joanne Woodward in a cool and refined tone, providing detail, mostly about the world around the characters but occasionally offering inside details to Newland, words largely taken from the Edith Wharton source. It’s in the farewell dinner for Ellen scene, after Ellen had considered her options and decided to return to the count, even if it meant a less than happy life for herself, where the narration is used most effectively. Explaining the signs that we, an outside audience, might have missed, she demonstrates that the lack of signs mean that everyone knows something that is untrue, that Newland and Ellen are having an affair, everyone, that is, including May. The innocent look on Winona Ryder’s face when the narrator explains this ends up betraying a hidden woundedness, and we can immediately sense the hurt that Newland has for having caused pain to May.
It was a different time where obligation to promises and systems meant more than individual passions. Ellen goes off back to the count, and Newland remains faithful to May, raising a family of healthy young men and women as their children. Is there sadness in the lost connection that was never fully consummated between Newland and Ellen? Yes, for sure. Is there nothing but sadness? No, not at all. Newland raised a good son with May, a son who would not have existed had he run off with Ellen. When given a final chance to see Ellen again, years later and after May’s death, he walks away, leaving Ellen to be a memory.
There’s a quiet strength to Newland, and Daniel Day Lewis plays him rather perfectly. Caught between his two desires and worlds, he is in complete control of his emotions, carefully expressing his sentiments except in his most unguarded moments with Ellen. Winona Ryder is the innocent as May, wide-eyed and earnest in his loves and fears while looking almost like a doll. Michelle Pfieffer is beautiful and mature as Ellen, a woman caught in a world she doesn’t quite understand and between two men, one of whom wants her and can’t have her and the other of whom wants her only as a decoration.
Scorsese walked into this production with all of his cinematic tools at their best. The production is gorgeous with ornate sets and wonderful costumes. The performances he helped craft are intricate and dedicated. The editing from Thelma Schoonmaker knows when to hold a shot to help establish a setting or an emotion and when to cut quickly or use slow motion to imply a specific point of view. I don’t think that it’s Scorsese’s greatest movie, but this is definitely one of his greatest. It’s also evidence that he is one of the greatest of filmmakers, making his unique approach fit well with material that seems unnatural to his previous body of work.