Meaner Streets
Chris Wisniewski on The Age of Innocence

About halfway into Martin Scorsese’s gilded age period melodrama The Age of Innocence—strangely underappreciated upon its release, a masterwork by any measure, and easily one of the greatest movies Scorsese has ever directed—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 this adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 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. A title sequence designed by Elaine and Saul Bass features the film’s opening credits rolling over a background of text written in flowing, colored script. Throughout the movie, written words of correspondences frequently fill Scorsese’s frame in close-up, or the words are spoken aloud by his characters as the actors directly address the camera. 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 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 a defining aspect of Scorsese’s film, which uses such devices to foreground storytelling. Except that the emphasis on storytelling here has less to do with the establishment of critical distance or remove than it does with revealing the centrality of social codes and situated identities to these characters and their milieu. The Age of Innocence is about the understandings expressed in words, glances, and gestures, about knowing how to “speak the language” of the society within which Newland and Ellen operate. In the vernacular of Wharton’s New York, what is unspoken matters just as much as what is said: an invitation declined or a decision to seek someone out from across a crowded room can matter more than any of the words the characters utter.

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 a surprising amount in common with his other major works of the early nineties, Goodfellas and Casino. As with those films, Scorsese cowrote the voiceover-heavy screenplay, and all three examine a social structure and a power system after they’ve already begun disintegrating. All period pieces, each of these three great works meditates on gender, honor, loyalty, and power through the story of a man who is, by movie’s end, a dinosaur. Because of their retrospective postures, each of these films approaches this slouch towards extinction as somewhat inevitable and a symptom of a more pervasive social rot. Though their protagonists never master the dying social worlds they circulate within, they are emblematic of them and their transience.

Unlike Goodfellas and Casino, however, The Age of Innocence is explicitly a melodrama, and as such, 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”; indeed, from a purely auteurist perspective, The Age of Innocence may be the most persuasive evidence for the argument that Scorsese, whatever his influences and source material, has a preternaturally and singularly cinematic sensibility. 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 images that are at once point-of-view shots and muscular assertions of the camera’s presence, a sea of tuxedos, silver and gold jewelry, and 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 palette, an immediate signifier that she doesn’t belong.

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 cocoonlike, firelit spaces where something real can pass between them, somewhere out of the range of the disapproving glances their friends and families might cast in their directions.

Even in these moments of private reverie, however, Newland is constrained by his own sense of propriety. He fantasizes about touching Ellen’s hand or her embracing him from behind, and Scorsese depicts these brief, imaginary lapses of transgressive desire before cutting back to a restrained Newland, paralyzed by fear. Much of the dialogue in the film concerns the question of freedom, particularly as it relates to gender and marriage. Characters debate what, if any, freedom Countess Olenska, estranged from the Polish Count who “kept her prisoner,” should have the latitude to enjoy. Newland begs May for a shortened engagement, so as to cut short the period of his own freedom and seal his fate decisively. Such notions are plainly illusory. The gap between Newland’s fantasies and his actions betrays how deeply he has already internalized the expectations others have for him. “New York meant freedom to me,” Ellen tells Newland late 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 Newland and Ellen can even playact a certain kind of “freedom,” but in these exchanges, they can still only communicate in innuendo and code. The balls, operas, dinners, and garden parties they attend, meanwhile, 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. In one of the movie’s most riveting sequences, Newland and Ellen speak to one another at the theater. The ambient sound falls away, and directional lighting isolates them, as though they’re the only people in the room. Their conversation is private but all-too-public, and in their quiet, decorous exchange, they allude to their shared love via references to yellow roses. Like everyone else, they speak a language of sublimation.

The Age of Innocence unfolds as a portrait of denial and restraint. This may be why it might have seemed upon its release to be so very un-Scorsese like, so incongruous in a filmography brimming with excess and violence. Yet the film’s climax, which begins with Newland and May’s first society dinner party—a farewell party for the Countess Olenska—and concludes with May revealing to Newland that she is pregnant, is surely as violent as anything in the Scorsese oeuvre. Like the other social scenes that precede it, the dinner is carefully choreographed, an exercise in indirect small talk over drinks and delicately plated morsels. Here, though, Woodward’s voiceover betrays the ruthless subtext of the affair, acknowledging that “New York believed [Newland] to be Madame Olenska’s lover,” a revelation that casts every movement and gesture in a cruel new light. This simple dinner marks the triumph of social code over desire, propriety over passion—achieved through a silent conspiracy. Newland’s fate is sealed in the next scene when May tells him of her pregnancy. They sit in Newland’s study, and she rises from her chair in a series of four brisk shots from different angles that overlap, extending the duration of the gesture. These rapidly edited shots end with naive, petite, innocent May in a low-angle image that turns her into an object of menace and the entire movie on its head: even before she betrays herself with words (she lets slip that she told Ellen of the pregnancy before she even knew it was certain, presumably to push her out of New York for good), the filmmaking reveals that she’s known everything about her husband’s true feelings all along. At the end of their conversation, Newland may be nominally alive, but May has, with lethal cunning, taken a hit out on his heart and soul.

All of this is another way of saying that The Age of Innocence is as brutal a film as anything in Scorsese’s filmography—and it is also just as kinetic. 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. Like Goodfellas and Casino, The Age of Innocence finds Scorsese at his most virtuosic and ambitious: the ball sequence that proceeds the opera scene at the opening 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.

While introducing The Age of Innocence at a 2012 screening at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, Scorsese rattled off an impressive list of influences, including Visconti’s The Leopard and Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (which he called “one of the greatest of all British films”). The ball sequence also recalls another American masterpiece based on a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about failed romance and social change, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. Like 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), and as in Scorsese’s film, Ambersons features an impressive early 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 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 Parisian apartment in his old age. He still imagines how his life could have been different if Ellen had repudiated social convention, had turned to him from a pier on a day long ago, giving him the courage he lacked to seek her out. But this last fantasy is, like all the others, only that—a fantasy. “Just tell her I’m old-fashioned,” he tells his son, 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.