With the Masterful “The Age of Innocence,” Martin Scorsese Dug Beneath the Surface


In many Martin Scorsese movies, the characters’ frustrations and passions — Jake LaMotta’s jealousy, Jordan Belfort’s greed — bubble up to the surface, exploding in plain view. In The Age of Innocence (1993), Scorsese’s goosebump-good adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel about the pomp and circumstance that dictated all aspects of life within the uppermost social enclaves of 1870s New York, the opposite proves true. This is a movie where a single brittle remark might seem to alter the course of a candlelit dinner, only for the congenial facade to be immediately rescued by polite hedging, demurred glances, and deft subject-changing. The most intense of emotions are tucked carefully away, hidden under propriety and inflexible rules of etiquette, private fantasies never to be referenced or spoken of aloud. In one scene, the lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) imagines the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) wrapping her arms around him; Scorsese indulges the young man’s vision, showing the pair caught in a desperate embrace. Of course, Newland does nothing about his feelings, the damned fool; how could he, when he stands engaged, to the great merriment of those in his orbit, to Ellen’s cousin, the perfectly proper and generally-agreed-to-be-ravishing May Welland (Winona Ryder)? Still, he’ll always have the fantasy.

To make a sumptuous period piece about well-mannered imbeciles with money seemed to some filmgoers a new challenge for Scorsese, when The Age of Innocence was first released. (Now 25, it has received a new 4K restoration.) But the movie is not an unfathomable departure, least of all geographically. In fact, the partnership of Scorsese’s volatile style and Wharton’s decorum-oriented milieu clarifies insights from both artists. As Scorsese’s iris shots and bursts of color and frisson-filled close-ups maximize the yearning that pulses between the lines of the novel, Wharton’s clever, cutting tone keeps the director in check, pushing him toward a psychological nuance of a more discreet order than, say, Raging Bull’s “Your mother sucks fucking big fucking elephant dicks.” Scorsese and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks hold closely to Wharton’s voice, to the point even of implementing a recurring narration (spoken by Joanne Woodward) that unspools hefts of Wharton’s prose wordforword. Some of the strongest passages find Scorsese and the cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s camera sweeping through immense rooms, inhaling opulence and character activity as Woodward coolly recites Wharton’s sentences dissecting the denizens. Through this analytical distancing, Scorsese achieves a Barry Lyndon–like sense of rueful detachment.

Newland Archer’s predicament in The Age of Innocence — his torn feelings between May Welland and a life of stability, and Ellen Olenska and a life of scandal — unfolds through a series of public gatherings and private tête-à-têtes. Scorsese’s extravagant camera movements emerge naturally from the former; so, too, does his Casino-like process mode, in which he keys in on a particular environment’s ceremonies and rituals — in this case, the plating of multicourse meals, or the trimming of post-dinner cigars. He also applies slow motion to episodes of especially conspicuous behavior. Watch Ellen, seated next to a man who does not fascinate her, glide across a crowded room to engage Newland in conversation — the narration underlining the audacity of her actions, leaving on her own volition one man’s side to pursue another’s (“It was not the custom in New York”). Slow motion reappears much more abstractly in an out-of-nowhere later shot (set to Enya’s “Marble Halls”) of a huddled mass of bowler hat–wearing men marching up a Manhattan sidewalk. In this movie of cloistered-off families whose interactions with everyday New York rarely extend beyond a flower-shop window or a shoulder brush en route to a box at the opera, this image of bundled-up people herded together against the wind evokes a profound melancholy even as it mystifies.

In the confessional scenes, between two people (and, often, with a fireplace), Scorsese calms the camera movement and engages the actors in a fiercely tempered collaboration. The rules governing this elite society hold power over these people even in their most secluded rooms, so Scorsese and the ensemble must land on subtly imaginative ways to communicate the secrets and hint at the concealed desires. Some of the methods (with the help of the editor, Thelma Schoonmaker) are as direct as a well-timed close-up — of hands caressing here or a log in the fire turning over there. Elsewhere, Scorsese’s positioning of the actors within the frame produces internal revelations. In one early encounter between Newland and Ellen, set at the latter’s apartment during the late afternoon, Scorsese guides the discussion gradually into a typical shot/reverse-shot breakdown; but Pfeiffer issues many of her initial lines and reactions not by returning her scene partner’s gaze but by glancing thoughtfully out the window in the other direction, signaling the adventurous inner life and disregard for convention that so magnetizes Newland. In such dealings of the unspoken, The Age of Innocence remains a consistent spellbinder, laying bare its inhabitants’ follies and furies with a tender touch and a vigilant quietude that accumulates into a grand force.

The Age of Innocence
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Sony Pictures
Opens August 10, IFC Center