Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence (1993) (© Columbia Pictures / IMDB)

All Things Seen and Unsaid in Scorsese’s ‘The Age of Innocence’

Scorsese's outlier drama of manners has aged well... mostly.

The Age of Innocence
Martin Scorsese
13 Mar 2018

My brother declined an invitation to see The Wolf of Wall Street, saying that director Martin Scorsese has no sense of subtlety. Of course, a trait such as subtlety can be just as subjective as the art form in question. What strikes one viewer as sly can strike another as overt or messy. A filmmaker like Scorsese had earned a reputation for making his audiences squirm as hard conflict unfolds on the screen. Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy — none of them were meant to be pretty or subtle. But shortly after scoring a slew of awards with Goodfellas and Cape Fear, Scorsese set out to make a period piece that traded in all of the director’s mean street cred for something pretty and subtle.

Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence presented a New York City diametrically opposed to Travis Bickle’s. Set in the late 19th century, aristocratic America is portrayed as a young national that has yet to grow out of its European and English influences. The men and women of high society obey all rules of etiquette, going so far as to swap out party gloves should you chose a new dancing partner. Everyone is polite to one another, even if they have more than just a few reservations about them. And divorce was one of the worst scandals one could wish to avoid. Martin Scorsese and his team of writers, costume designer, set designers, and photographers set every one of these conservative values to the silver screen in 1993. The Age of Innocence was met with much praise from most critics, a little confusion from his core audience, and some indifference from the remaining public. A “Director-Approved” blu-ray edition has been added to The Criterion Collection, guaranteeing pristine picture quality for a film that was already overflowing with visual detail.

Most of The Age of Innocence has held up very well. Between Dante Ferretti’s elaborate sets, Gabriella Pescucci’s Academy-Award winning costumes, Michael Ballhaus’s picturesque cinematography, screenwriter Jay Cock’s faithful devotion to the novel, and Scorsese’s meticulous synthesis of it all, the only indication that this movie was shot in the ’90s is a young-looking Daniel Day Lewis. The attention to detail appears to have paid off, even 25 years later. Not only did Scorsese and Cock make copious amounts of notes when reading the novel together, they also consulted books about etiquette published during the time. The two of them admitted that they were not an expert on New York in the 1870s, relying on their love of the Big Apple to carry them through their research. Whether or not all involved in the shooting of The Age of Innocence nailed this particular era with 100 percent accuracy, it is still a unique achievement — if not for cinema in general, at least for Scorsese himself.

What hasn’t aged well are some of the camera tricks. There are a series of small cross-fades that don’t really add any dimension to what’s happening, especially when they focus on two things that are happening in the same space at the same time and only one of those things is telling a piece of the story. There’s also the distracting habit of focusing in on Day Lewis’s character, Newland Archer, while blacking out the rest of the screen — as if the viewer didn’t know that they were supposed to be paying attention to him. Most egregious of all are the color fades. They are mercifully few in number, but they are beyond distracting. The least subtle example is a camera shot of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Countess Olenska as a lonely, angry, and ostracized woman sitting alone in her house. She faces the camera in disgust and the picture fades to a hot red. But as I mentioned earlier, subtlety is subjective, and Scorsese appears to be at peace with this weird decision to this very day.

He explains his affinity for colors in a supplemental interview on this disc. He, Cocks, Ferretti, and Pescucci all give interviews, shot in 2017, reflecting on the film they made together nearly 25 years ago. There’s also the initial trailer and a short named “Innocence and Experience”, a behind-the-scenes look at The Age of Innocence as it was being made. Between these menu options and the lengthy essay by Geoffrey O’Brien titled “Savage Civilty” printed in the Blu-ray insert, you could say that all of the supplemental material does a more complete job of immersing the viewer in the 1870s than the film itself. For while Scorsese and company’s sense of workmanship counts for something in the visual sense, some viewers may not find the story all that compelling. As Mark Savlov of the Austin Chronicle put it, “it’s just hard to give a damn what happens.”

Winona Ryer and Tamasin Day-Lewis (© 1993 Columbia Pictures) (IMDB)

Day Lewis’s Newland Archer is a prominent New York attorney who wishes to marry into a wealthy family by way of Winona Ryder’s character May Welland. The fly in the ointment is Pfeiffer’s character, May’s cousin Ellen Olenska, who is seeking divorce from her overseas husband. Newland Archer reluctantly agrees to legally handle the divorce, meaning that he’ll get to spend a lot more time with Countess Olenska. Their “affair” if you can call it that, consists of touching each other, brief kissing sessions, longing glances, and the unbuttoning of the countess’s glove in the privacy of a carriage. Yes, as Scorsese admitted in his interview, this is a film about two people who “don’t make it”. O’Brien puts it more academically: “Here was a novel about deeds not done, or at least never talked about, emotions held back, behavioral codes enforced by mute but irresistible consensus. The Age of Innocence is fundamentally a study in frustration, a passionate love story in which the passion — the powerful mutual attraction of Newland and his scandal-clouded cousin Ellen — remains unrealizable.”

When a movie is set to simmer for 138 minutes without ever reaching a boil, it’s naturally not going to be for everyone. But it’s been 25 years since the theatrical release of The Age of Innocence, so surely it has found its audience by now. This audience appreciates period pieces, dazzling costumes, eye-popping colors, and a story too shy to be frank. If you fall into more than one of these categories, then a Criterion blu-ray is worth your money. Otherwise, there’s always Taxi Driver.

RATING 7 / 10