In The Age of Innocence, Martin Scorsese films Gilded Age Manhattan high society as a resplendent but suffocating tribute to its own wealth.
In The Age of Innocence, Martin Scorsese films Gilded Age Manhattan high society as a resplendent but suffocating tribute to its own wealth. Exaggerations abound, as in the depiction of corpulent, powerful matriarch of the scene (Miriam Margolyes) as practically fused to her parlor couch, an empress in a perpetual state of receiving guests seeking to kiss the ring. Scorsese establishes the sedentary luxury of this realm, then uses his camera to boldly upset its immobility, moving through the ostentatious halls and immaculately ordered parlors in direct defiance to the rigid codes of conduct and hierarchy imposed within them. The film’s characters, members of Manhattan’s high society during the GIlded Age, move as if every step were choreographed, fastidious in each act of social contact, but the camera curves, floats and darts around and through these dense webs of propriety with clashing speed and flair, as if in open defiance to this inhuman stasis.
Such elegant, incessant movement comes to represent the barely restrained passions simmering just beneath the surface, particularly those of Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a recently engaged young man. Newland immediately stands out from his peers for his lack of enthusiasm for the intense gossip that reinforces the order around him. Attending the opera with some friends, Newland discovers that Countess Ellen Oleska (Michelle Pfeiffer) is in attendance with her cousin, his fiancée May (Winona Ryder), mainly through the shocked whispers of others, who allude to some sort of scandal concerning the woman. Like the drawing-room equivalent of a blockbuster hero, Newland swiftly springs into action, heading over to May’s opera box to talk to Ellen in a tacit demonstration of acceptance for the sake of preserving his fiancée’s social standing. Within minutes of sitting down with Ellen, however, Newland takes a liking to her, making plans on the spot to keep seeing her.
Newland’s interest in Ellen is scarcely surprising, given her radical clash with socialite society. Everyone at the opera is dressed either in black tuxedos or lavish but modestly colored dresses, while Ellen arrives in a dress of startling, rich blue. She also has an eagerness in her voice absent from even the most affectionate conversation from others, an unguarded quality that makes her most circumspect confessions feel more honest and open than the most innocuous comments of the socialites. This freer nature naturally earns Ellen the broad disapproval of Newland’s social circle, which is compounded by the fact that she is seeking a divorce from her husband due to his infidelity.
Scorsese’s films are defined by their roiling passions, usually concerning the violence of men who viciously project their self-loathing and insecurity onto the seedy, myopic world that they have made their own. Yet when the director called The Age of Innocence his “most violent picture,” his declaration may not have been ironic. The idyllic glamor of New York’s aristocracy is worlds removed from the mean streets and gangster dens that made Scorsese famous, but both are linked by the merciless enforcement of knotty, absurd codes of conduct that maintain a strict, esoteric order. Newland, falling for Ellen’s vivacious spirit, finds himself confronted with the callous attitudes of his family and friends, who speak of Ellen’s nature as if it were a birth defect and who believe that her husband’s cheating somehow reflects poorly only on her. More than once, Newland visibly and aurally trembles with outrage as he discusses Ellen, and one realizes that all of the Scorsesean violence is there, but it is tamped down, restricted under three-piece suits to prevent even the brutish catharsis of an actual outburst. The only outlet comes from the narration that Scorsese pulls from Edith Wharton’s original text, passages laced with a casually delivered satire that lets slip some of the contempt one should feel for this farcical system.
Day-Lewis’s carefully controlled anger is just one of the standout performances here. Pfeiffer, nearly at the end of a multi-year stretch where seemingly each new performance she gave topped her previous high-water marks, is transcendently tragic as Ellen, her bright friendliness gradually betrayed as a desperate façade for the despair she feels. As Newland and Ellen grow closer, their conversations ironically become more abstract. In one scene, Newland confesses his love her through the slingshot gravity of mentioning that May suspects that he loves someone else, saying it without saying it. Yet when the pair do talk more plainly about their feelings, Pfeiffer lends Ellen the added sturdiness of a woman who knows she must bear the brunt of suffering silently; Newland, in a state of tearful exhaustion, blurts “You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and then you told me to carry on with a false one. No one can endure that.” “I’m enduring it,” Ellen responds with deadened calm, leaving unspoken that she has endured as much and plenty more as him.
For her part, Ryder plays May with a beatific, youthful naïveté that is undercut by intelligence and social awareness. May can calmly reinforce all the social cues Newland threatens to break, gently dissuading him from inviting a “common” man to dine with them and so forth, but she is also perceptive. When Newland attempts to shorten their engagement and hasten the wedding in an attempt to resist his temptations, May instantly deduces that his declaration of impatient love is really nervous jitters. May clearly represents the mannered, orderly life that would entrap Newland, but she herself is never mere window dressing.
For all the suppressed urges written on the actors’ faces, though, it remains the camera and, most especially, the editing that gives greatest voice to anguish. Editing is by definition a shaping of time, and the film employs dissolves as its main form of transition. Dissolves stretch that passage of time, accentuating the sense of the characters feeling their chance at happiness slipping away. Each dissolve feels like acid stripping away flesh, an agonizing protraction of an unmerciful living death. A skeleton key to the film is given from the start with the Saul Bass-produced credits, which superimpose the lacy trappings of high society with images of roses in bloom. Such blossoming naturally evokes the bloom of romance, but as the sequence is crafted it also resembles blood staining the doilies onto which the roses are superimposed, lending an ominous mood to the delicate visuals. “This was a world balanced so precariously that its harmony could be shattered by a whisper,” the narrator informs the audience near the film’s start. It’s not entirely accurate; this world maintains its harmony throughout the film, but those who whisper against it are ultimately the only things that break apart.