Age of Innocence, The (1993): Scorsese’s Lush Adaptation of Edith Wharton, Starring Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer

Every once in a while a director associated with a particular film genre feels a need to do something different, expanding his thematic or stylistic range.  Actors who have suffered from typecasting call it “stretching.”

Scorsese, the most consistently inventive director working in the American cinema today, has never been a victim of typecasting. From his breakthrough film, the gritty and poetic “Mean Streets” (1973), to the remake of “Cape Fear” (1991), his artistry has set a standard for filmmaking; “Raging Bull” (1980) was voted by film critics as “best film” of the decade.

Scorsese established notoriety through his portrayals of urban angst in such films as “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “GoodFellas” (1990). For a director associated with violence of the lower class and with men, his new movie, “The Age of Innocence,” a poignant story of love and loss, seems different from anything he has done before.

Based on Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it’s a lavish epic, an admirable if not entirely successful effort.

With Age of Innocence, Scorsese has taken a big, bold risk. Scorsese has not only directed the film, he also co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks. A faithful adaptation, the script trims the story down to manageable length (the novel is huge) while retaining its basic structure. “Age of Innocence” can be described as the tragedy of a man caught between two women and two worlds. The story is intricately interwoven with passion, sacrifice and intrigue, played against the opulent backdrop of New York in the 1870s, a time of the Morgans and Vanderbilts, of lavish excess, and social hypocrisy.

When the film opens, prominent lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), who’s engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), is urging her to hurry their wedding date. Their match embodies the old New York, with its tyranny of family lineage and social standing. However, Newland becomes captivated by Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), May’s cousin, who has just returned from Europe after leaving her Polish husband. Ellen’s honesty and beauty point up the constraints of Newland’s milieu and the inexperience of his childish fianc. Finding a kindred soul in Ellen, he falls passionately in love with her, and must choose between May and the world he knows and Ellen and the world he dreams of knowing.

An independent woman, ahead of her times, Ellen can’t and doesn’t conform to the norms of New York’s rigid society. It is one of the film’s ironies, that she is assumed to have gained her new mores in Europe, the old regime, and not in the U.S., the new world. Struggling with his inner self, Newland finally dares to express in public his unconventional ideas about women’s position. He even defends Ellen and, with the help of his mother, orchestrates her acceptance into society. Newland becomes totally obsessed with the bewitching Ellen, and with the excuse of advising her legally on her divorce; he’s able to meet with her regularly.

Nonetheless, when Newland finally reveals his feelings, neither he nor Ellen knows how to handle their affair. This is a classic American dilemma of head versus heart. Newland conforms to his prescribed status rather than listening to the dictates of his heart. The obsessive central love story is repressed on all levels.

At first glance, “Age of Innocence” seems like a surprising choice for Scorsese. But on closer examination, Scorsese’s range has been broader. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” was a revisionist woman’s picture, and “The Color of Money,” which won Paul Newman an Oscar, was a sequel to the noirish “The Hustler.” Indeed, Scorsese shares some thematic interests in common with Wharton, such as concern for historical authenticity and fascination with society’s rituals. Moreover, the upper crust New York is just as codified and prohibitive as the crime worlds he had depicted in “Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas.” Scorsese has said that what attracted him to the book was its “sense of poignancy and of loss.”

Of particular interest is the delicacy with which Scorsese handles the women and the actresses who play them. Scorsese’s has been a man’s world, though he got a fantastic, Oscar-winning, performance from Ellen Burstyn in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” the only female protagonist in his work to date. In the past, Scorsese’s attitude toward women has been problematic, often placing them on a pedestal to be revered. The mother figure, whose continuing devotion inspires a man’s worship, is a staple in his work; Scorsese’s real mother has appeared in several of his films. The men in “Taxi Driver” describe women as angels or as whores. This virgin-whore dichotomy is often embodied within a single female. In “Taxi Driver,” Iris (played by the young Jodie Foster), a child-woman, is an object of idealization for DeNiro and object of desire for her customers. But since women dominate “Age of Innocence,” Scorsese shows a fresher, more sensitive, treatment.

In most of Scorsese’s films, there is sudden, unmotivated eruption of violence within seemingly peaceful surroundings: hitting a man in the face, slugging a stranger in the street, picking a fight, badgering with a gun. In “Age of Innocence,” there is also violence but it’s emotional rather than physical. There are other thematic continuities. Each of Scorsese’s films, including “Age of Innocence,” has dealt with personality formation, unstable identities, truth and betrayal, entrapment and isolation. His best films have combined a cineaste’s passion for flamboyant visual style and actor’s obsession with rich characters placed in a particular time and place.

Yet something is missing from this movie: Empathy or real feelings for the characters. “Age of Innocence” is an excessively cold and formally detached, perhaps the text, with its focus on rigid manners and emotional repression, dictated Scorsese’s distanced approach. Ultimately, the film is more successful in reconstructing its context than in delivering the meaning of its text.

That said, Scorsese’s technical brilliance is in full evidence in “Age of Innocence,” which again displays his exuberant style. The recreation of a milieu long gone is meticulous. The film abounds with close-ups of food, fabrics, curtains, paintings, and decor. All of which amounts to visual, not psychological, detail. Scorsese has always been more effective in expressing explosive than repressed personalities.

The attention to the mores and values of the time reflects the usual Scorsese meticulous authenticity. The film gives credit to a table decoration consultant and a chef for nineteenth century meals! The story begins with a floral-and-lace title sequence, then goes on to chronicle formal balls, dinners, operas, and other social events. The production is sumptuous in every department, a result of Scorsese’s collaboration with artists such as producer Barbara DeFina, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Elmer Bernstein, whose music is romantically lush, and Dante Ferretti who oversaw the opulent production design.

Daniel Day-Lewis dominates the film with a bravura performance. Michelle Pfeiffer has good moments, but she struggles with finding the right tone. Winona Ryder looks right as the child-woman, effectively conveying her character’s duality, the transition from a naive girl to a manipulative woman.

Other problems Joanne Woodward’s prominent narration, which increases the distance between the viewers and the screen.

“Age of Innocence” is highly recommended as a portrait of an era and class system, seldom chronicled in such detail in American movies.

After their wedding and honeymoon, Archer and May settle down in New York, and his memory of the Countess fades. When the Countess returns to care for her grandmother, she and Archer agree to consummate their affair. But then suddenly, the Countess announces her intention to return to Europe. After the farewell party, May confides in Archer that she is pregnant and that she had told Ellen her news.

The last scene finds Archer, the dutiful, loving father with his engaged son, Ted. a widower who had mourned the death of May (of infectious pneumonia) in earnest. Ted persuades him to travel to Paris, where he has arranged a visit the Countess Olenska, whom he has not seen in 25 years. Ted confides to his father May’s deathbed confession that “she knew we were safe with you, and always would be. Because once, when she asked you to, you gave up the thing you wanted most.” Archer responds, “She never asked me.”

That afternoon outside the Countess’ apartment, Archer sends his son alone to visit her. Sitting outside, he recollects their time together, then gets up and departs.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer
Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen Olenska
Winona Ryder as May Welland
Miriam Margolyes as Mrs. Mingott
Geraldine Chaplin as Mrs. Welland
Michael Gough as Henry van der Luyden
Richard E. Grant as Larry Lefferts
Mary Beth Hurt as Regina Beaufort
Robert Sean Leonard as Ted Archer
Norman Lloyd as Mr. Letterblair
Alec McCowen as Sillerton Jackson
Siân Phillips as Mrs. Archer
Carolyn Farina as Janey Archer
Jonathan Pryce as Rivière
Alexis Smith as Louisa van der Luyden
Stuart Wilson as Julius Beaufort
June Squibb as Mrs. Mingott’s maid
Joanne Woodward as the narrator
Domenica Cameron-Scorsese as Katie Blenker

Cameos by Scorsese and Family
Scorsese’s parents, the actors Charles and Catherine Scorsese, have a small cameo appearance during the sequence in which Archer meets the Countess at the Pennsylvania Terminus in Jersey City. Scorsese has a cameo as the fussy bustling photographer who later takes the official wedding photographs.