Chris Wisniewski on The Age of Innocence
About halfway into Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) accepts an invitation to spend a weekend on the Hudson with friends. He has an ulterior motive: the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), cousin to his fiancée, May (Winona Ryder), and the estranged wife of a European count, will also be upstate. Nursing a quiet, aching longing for the Countess, Newland seeks her out, though Ellen is already expecting him. May wrote to Ellen to tell her she’d dispatched Newland, to “take care of her.” “I wanted to come!” Newland counters, and Ellen wonders why—if he considers her “helpless or defenseless” or if perhaps the other women in his society, unlike herself, “never feel any need.” “What sort of need?” he wonders. “Please don’t ask me,” she demures, “I don’t speak your language.”
In The Age of Innocence—an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize–winning Edith Wharton novel about the chaste and forbidden romance between Newland and Ellen, set against the backdrop of the rigid and hypocritical society of the aristocratic old New York City of the 1870s—language is very much the point. The film’s opening credits roll over a background of text written in flowing, colored script. The written words of correspondences frequently fill Scorsese’s frame in close-up. Time and again, Newland and Ellen exchange notes, cards, and letters that are pointedly elliptical but pregnant with meaning. And, rather than eschewing the novelistic qualities of their source material, Scorsese and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks have retained Wharton’s arch, writerly voice through the inclusion of an omnipresent omniscient third-person narration (by Joanne Woodward) lifted directly from the book. Such self-conscious attention to the written and spoken word risks the charge of “literariness,” but it is an essential aspect of Scorsese’s film. The Age of Innocence is about the social codes expressed in words, glances, and gestures, about knowing how to “speak the language” of the society within which Newland and Ellen operate. In the language of Wharton’s New York, what is unspoken matters just as much as what is said: an invitation declined or a smile across a crowded room or a woman’s decision to stare across a bay at a sailboat rather than to turn around and greet the gentleman standing behind her can matter more than any of the words the characters utter.
This being a melodrama, the vast reserves of desperation, desire, and passion suppressed through the inflexible social codes of this milieu get displaced onto music (by the great Elmer Bernstein), costume (by Oscar-winner Gabriella Pescucci), set design (by Dante Ferretti and Robert J. Franco), and other aspects of mise-en-scène. Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s bold and brilliant command of these stylistic elements obviates any potential criticism that the film is somehow “literary.” Whatever language Wharton or his characters are speaking, Scorsese expresses himself with thrilling dexterity through the language of cinema. Take, for example, the movie’s opening opera scene. Newland arrives and takes his seat in his box, as another gentleman scans the room. The camera captures in briskly edited close-ups and wider shots a sea of tuxedos and silver and gold jewelry, muted colors against the lush red velvet drapes of the opera house. Then Ellen appears, joining her cousin and aunt. She wears a bright turquoise gown that provides a pop of color out of place in this muted palette, an immediate signifier that she doesn’t belong here.
The next time Ellen attends a society function, a party thrown for her by a wealthy family that is an ally of the Archers, she enters as a fiery flash of bright red in a dress as audacious as the earlier turquoise. Through color and costume, Scorsese makes the point, long before Ellen does herself, that she does not know how to feign the air of discretion she is expected to maintain if she wishes to circulate in New York society; she does not speak their language. In the next scene, though, Newland comes to visit her in her home, with its red walls, roses, curtains, and scrims, and here, finally, Ellen, wearing a maroon dress, belongs to the mise-en-scène. She positions herself near the crackling fire, and the warmth of Scorsese’s color scheme conveys everything these characters cannot say to one another—the intimacy, the desire. Ellen, of course, is married, and Newland betrothed to May, and so it is up to Scorsese to carve out these cocoon-like, firelit spaces where something real can pass between them out of the range of the disapproving glances their friends and families might cast in their directions.
“New York meant freedom to me,” Ellen tells Newland later in the film, but by then, they both have come to see New York as a prison. The circumscribed spaces where they visit one another privately, the fire providing the dimmest of illumination, are the only ones where they can be free. The balls, operas, dinners, and garden parties they attend become venues for constant surveillance; in this “innocent age,” each person is responsible for doing his or her part to maintain the image and decorum on which this frequently vicious society is predicated—a milieu as carefully constructed as the paintings that adorn the walls of its inhabitants.
All of this Scorsese observes in shots that are delicately composed but ferociously restless. His camera is constantly in motion, insinuating itself between characters, panning, tilting, and tracking from faces to walls to plates of food to silverware to fine china. If The Age of Innocence seems an oddity in the Scorsese oeuvre—it is with New York, New York and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore one of only a few overtly romantic dramas—it has more in common with his other major works of the early nineties than just its kinetic camera movement. As with Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese cowrote the voiceover-heavy screenplay, and all three films examine a social structure and a power system after they’ve already disintegrated. These films find Scorsese at his most virtuosic and ambitious: the ball sequence that proceeds the opera scene at the opening of Age of Innocence has as its centerpiece a breathtaking shot that follows Newland as he enters and explores the party, moving from room to room, greeting people while pausing to glimpse at paintings. Though perhaps less celebrated than the single-take nightclub entrance from Goodfellas, it is no less masterful or effective in navigating space and establishing relationships between individual characters and between those characters and their environments.
This sequence also recalls another American masterpiece based on a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about failed romance and social change. Like Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, The Age of Innocence looks back at the late nineteenth century with a bitingly acerbic wit as well as a trace of wistfulness (Welles assumed novelist Booth Tarkington’s voice the way Woodward stands in for Wharton here). As in Scorsese’s film, Ambersons features an early bravura ball sequence, also visualized mostly through following shots. Whether Scorsese consciously meant to reference Welles’s film or not, the affinity is striking. Indeed, Welles could just as well be speaking for Scorsese when he intones, near the end of Ambersons, “Tomorrow, everything would be gone.”
Scorsese’s film, meanwhile—strangely underappreciated upon its release, a masterwork by any measure, and one of the best movies he's directed—also concludes with a reflection on obsolescence. Newland, having internalized the very mechanisms of surveillance and power that made his genuine love for Ellen untenable, stands outside of Ellen’s apartment in his old age. He still fantasizes about how his life could have been different if Ellen had repudiated social convention, had turned to him from the pier on a day long ago. But the fantasy is only that. “Just tell her I’m old fashioned,” he says, admitting that he’s finally only fluent in the language of the past. The words almost seem to say it all; the images express more than words ever could.
The Age of Innocence plays June 21 as part of at Reverse Shot's See It Big series at Museum of the Moving Image.