Truly Great Movies – The Age of Innocence
“The persons of their world lived in an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies, and the fact that he and she understood each other without a word seemed to the young man to bring them nearer than any explanation would have done.”
– Book 1, Chapter 2, The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, is a book I re-read once a year. For some reason, it sticks with me internally wherever I go, a constant reminder of the cruelty of society when it is faced with the unusual and unique. Ellen Olenska is a character I strongly identify with in a multitude of ways. She is strong of will and artistic of mind, but yet bends and gives beneath the wishes and expectations of those she loves. She does this unselfishly, but in the end abandons her soulmate to prevent his social ruin and to keep her own ideals.
Martin Scorsese, at first glance, might seem an odd choice to direct a film based on Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece of social manipulation. Surprisingly, however, the theme of the outsider trying to break into (or break out of) a “family” is common throughout many of Scorsese’s great films. Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Sam Rothstein in Casino, Amsterdam Vallon in Gangs of New York – all are characters facing the immovable forces and machinations of a world they often don’t truly understand.
What happens when you realize what you want the most goes against everything you’ve ever believed about the the tightly-knit world you inhabit? This is Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis)’s dilemma in The Age of Innocence, and Scorsese brings his struggle front and center in this gorgeous film.
Scorsese makes The Gilded Age of old New York come alive. Setting is as much a character in this film as any of the players. Sweeping shots of the decorous and overstuffed world of the late 1800s (the camera shows in detail the floral splendor of a fountain centerpiece designed for a party of merely eight guests) and Joanne Woodward’s superb narration give the viewer a glimpse into the veiled hypocrisy of the upper crust.
Newland is on the verge of marrying New York’s most virginal and appropriate maiden, May Welland (Winona Ryder). This union of two fine families, the bedrock of society, is a momentous event. Throwing a wrench into these illustrious proceedings, however, is the arrival of May’s bohemian cousin Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfieffer). Ellen is a woman unlike any Newland has ever encountered. Ellen “ran away” to Europe to marry a Polish count. Newland “barely remembers” her from their teenage days, but once she re-enters the scene, he is mesmerized. Every other woman in Newland’s world follows society’s glorious plan without question, but Ellen is seeking a divorce from her philandering husband – securing a freedom which the family she left behind in New York believes she has no right to possess.
Daniel Day Lewis plays Newland almost exactly as he is portrayed in the novel. One never really knows Newland’s soul. It is only his behavior around Ellen which redeems him and brings life to his features. Around May and the rest of New York he is as dull and murky as dishwater.
Newland, a lawyer, is assigned by his future family to “convince” Ellen that her divorce is folly and will cause scandal and inconvenience for her loved ones. Ellen is at first confused, and presses Newland to say out loud what society will never admit: a sense of freedom and self-reliance in a woman is not considered appropriate.
Yet Newland grows to admire Ellen’s unconsciously unconventional habits. She goes out with whomever she chooses, regardless of their status. When Scorsese shows her home, in contrast with the stale browns and dark blues of the society grand dames, Ellen’s apartment is awash in shades of red and yellow, bursting with eccletic works of art. Newland gazes as the camera follows his perusal of an oil painting of the American Southwest; then he lingers over a small ceramic tribal mask. Ellen sees beauty in variety, whereas Newland has (up until now), only seen the mundane.
Although the Ellen of Wharton’s novel is not a beauty, nor is she a blond (she is brunette and almost bordering on “mousy” in the book), Pfeiffer gives Ellen the glow of one who is confident in her own skin, even if her beauty pales in comparison with May’s porcelain perfection. This is what draws Newland to her. Ellen does and says what Newland can never express. Eventually, this attraction between two people who know what the other is thinking without expressing a word, boils over.
Each time Newland and Ellen seem to have a chance at being happy together, society steps in to remind them of the “rules”. Ellen runs away, but Newland always seems to find her. In one poignant scene, he laments his marriage while Scorsese’s camera flits back and forth to each half of the eerily calm couple that can never be, shades of white illumninating the silence, until Lewis’s Newland finally breaks through with desperation in his voice, saying, “If you’re using my marriage as some victory of ours, then there’s no reason on earth why you shouldn’t go back. You gave me my first glimpse of a real life. Then you asked me to go on with the false one. No one can endure that.” Ellen reminds him gently, “I’m enduring it.”
Scorsese’s visual images are haunting, and the cinematography by Michael Ballhaus is picturesque with just the threatening edge necessary to convey this world that could, according to Wharton, be “shattered by a whisper”. Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks wisely incorporate Wharton’s original narration. Why mess with what is already so powerful? All this is layered perfectly beneath Elmer Bernstein’s haunting original score.
In the end, even the characters so difficult to like in the novel, primarily Newland’s “suffering” wife May, have their purpose. Ryder’s Oscar-nominated, unruffled portrayal makes sense in the end, when we realize she has known of Newland’s real love all along. Yet, she still manages to conquer her wayward husband by pulling him back into the very society he thought Ellen could help him escape.
The coda of the story brings us forward to Newland’s son’s own upcoming weddding, when Newland once again has the option to come face to face with his soulmate. His decision is one of the most moving scenes in cinema, and Scorsese wisely stays away from melodrama when the viewer observes Newland’s final choice.
The Age of Innocence is one of Scorsese’s most finely crafted masterpieces. He dedicated it to his father and, at the time in 1992, stated it was the movie he was the most proud of creating. Even if period drama isn’t exactly your “cup of tea”, Innocence is well worth a first, second, or even third viewing.