The Age of Innocence: Savage Civility

When Martin Scorsese undertook to film Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel The Age of Innocence, it struck many that he was straying rather drastically from his established turf. Was the director of Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) going to venture among the suffocatingly respectable late-Victorian elite of 1870s New York, a tribe that, in Wharton’s telling, could be said to have made conventionality into a religious creed? Here was a novel about deeds not done, or at least never talked about, emotions held in check, behavioral codes enforced by mute but irresistible consensus. Nothing seemed further from the extremes of emotional and physical violence—of violence as a language for those unable otherwise to get at their emotions—that Scorsese had explored most recently in his profane mobster masterpiece Goodfellas (1990) and his startlingly brutal remake of Cape Fear (1991). In Wharton, the real action is internal, taking place within the consciousness of her protagonist, Newland Archer, a young man with every quality but the capacity to break free of stifling social norms. The Age of Innocence is fundamentally a study in frustration, a passionate love story in which the passion—the powerful mutual attraction of Newland and his scandal-clouded cousin Ellen—remains unrealizable.

That the book is as much anthropological monograph as novel must have sparked Scorsese’s affinity. His penchant for charting in near-documentary fashion the values and practices of the milieus in which his stories unfolded had become clearer with Goodfellas, and would continue to be expressed in films as seemingly disparate as Casino (1995), Kundun (1997), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), in which no action can be fully understood unless it is seen as an element in a much wider pattern. In this sense, Wharton’s novel was made for him. The rigorously upheld customs and shibboleths of the elite among whom the author was raised, and whose motives she explicates in such detail, are not backdrop but primary subject, while Newland and Ellen and the other players in the drama function almost as illustrative cases.

Wharton lays out a double track from the moment when, in the fourth paragraph, young Newland makes his late entrance into New York’s Academy of Music—just in time, as he intended, to hear the third-act love duet from Charles Gounod’s Faust. The whole story will be told from his point of view. But a second voice likewise imposes itself, the omniscient narrator who will tell us more about what makes Newland tick than even he can fully realize: “He had dawdled over his cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization.” Thus, by page 2, the narrator has more or less signaled how everything is likely to come out. This disembodied observer will track Newland through all the shifts and small rebellions and awkward retreats of his never-to-be-consummated affair with Ellen Olenska, hovering so intimately close to his perceptions that it is often ambiguous where Newland’s thoughts end and Wharton’s unblinking dissection begins. Her genius is to engage us on both levels at once: we finally care very much what happens to these people, even while realizing that, without her mapping of the rules that hem them in, their story could be reduced to the most banal triangle situation.

In coming to grips with all the dimensions of Wharton’s novel, Scorsese created one of his greatest and most ambitious films, as much film essay as romantic drama, a work that challenges its spectators to pick up on its overlapping levels and rapidly shifting angles of approach. It lends itself to many viewings because, in effect, it contains many films, reflecting and commenting on one another. And commenting on Scorsese’s other films as well: it was impossible to ignore the film’s analogies with, for example, the rituals of Goodfellas, with those upright clans of old New York just a different breed of mobsters, bound by comparably unbending codes. Weren’t Henry and Louisa van der Luyden, the exalted aristocratic arbiters called on to resolve sticky questions of social propriety, rather akin to Paul Sorvino’s Mafia boss, adjudicating matters in deceptively soft-spoken sit-downs? Scorsese’s Age of Innocence (1993) builds up a devastating sense of oppressive social power, an atmosphere of underlying dread and suspicion sustained not by physical violence but by rigorously enforced techniques of exclusion and exile.

The dread coexists with an opulence that, through the lens of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, is always gratifying to the eye but never merely a matter of upscale pomp. It is easy to spot the cinephile allusions at work, from Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) to Visconti’s Senso (1954). But what remains most striking is the degree to which Scorsese chose to retain not only Wharton’s story line but the manner, the method, and the very language of her telling. He is always intent on breaking things down to examine their component parts. The central emotional drama is circumscribed within a diagram of Newland Archer’s world, complete with explanatory voice-overs and visual inventories. My own first impression was of deliberate overload, of being given more to look at and listen to than could be easily processed. This kicks in from the outset, with the credits designed by Elaine and Saul Bass, in which stately time-lapse images of unfolding flowers, set to an orchestral passage from Faust, are superimposed over backdrops of impeccably fluid Victorian calligraphy and delicate lacework patterns: an uneasy mix of unruly nature and cozy nostalgia, unrepressed sexuality and rigorous formal control. The struggle to reconcile these contradictions is at the heart of the film, a struggle that will move through stages of anguish, resignation, and lingering melancholy.

The layering deepens in the opening scene at the opera, as the voice of a soprano singing in darkness gives way to a screen full of daisies. As a hand reaches to pluck a flower from that mass of yellow, we find ourselves onstage in mid-duet, and then, the visual pace quickening as the music proceeds in its grand cadences, shift from a boutonniere in Newland’s lapel and a glimpse of his face to a series of rapid pans through the opera house, like eyes moving around a crowded hall in darkness, picking up glimpses of faces, jewels, other people’s opera glasses likewise scanning the room. A few lines of dialogue sketch out a hint of a story line, as Newland (Daniel Day-Lewis) strides across the vast marble lobby and up a flight of stairs to visit the box where his fiancée, May Welland (Winona Ryder), is seated with her mother and with Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), newly returned from Europe after her marriage to a Polish count collapsed under dubious circumstances. Further pieces of story are conveyed through clipped dialogue as we linger for the first time on the faces of Day-Lewis, Ryder, and Pfeiffer, faces that will be constant anchoring points in the ensuing swirl of ceremonies and artifacts and scenic vistas.

In establishing the picture of a society hidebound and obsessed with decorum, Scorsese goes strikingly against the grain of that decorum by setting a pace so rushed and a visual field so overcrowded. One scene dissolves quickly into another, as if the underlying mood of this elite is one of discontented impatience and unappeasable hunger for fresh stimulation. Things get thicker yet when, in the midst of all this movement, Joanne Woodward’s voice-over narration abruptly emerges to announce the swift departure of these operagoers for the Beauforts’ annual ball. It is the first of many interventions in which large slabs of Wharton’s text are laid directly over the action, as if the author herself had been enlisted to provide a supplementary audio commentary track. As read by Woodward, these passages have a tartness that distances us from the characters’ immediate drama, like footnotes drawing our attention toward peripheral gestures and implications we would otherwise miss. Time is made to stand still for a moment so we can take a closer look before being caught up again in the onward flow.

This laying down of Wharton’s prose over already busy scenes is matched by a visual syntax of equal elaboration. Ear and eye compete for attention. In one splice, an empty ballroom fills with dancers. We make our way with Newland into the ballroom by way of a cunningly designed series of “enfiladed drawing-rooms” (the narrator gives us the term as we are going through them) set off with drapes and hung with a profusion of paintings, more than one could take stock of, from Jean‑Léon Gérôme’s The Duel After the Masquerade to William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s The Return of Spring, exemplifying the gaudy tastes of the host, the corrupt banker Julius Beaufort. Overhead shots of dancers or diners are as schematic as blueprints. There is a continual cataloging of the artifacts so central to this insular society—books, silverware, furniture, jewelry, gowns, enormous portions of food—an ongoing annotation. We are in every way encouraged to remain alert to everything in our field of vision or hearing as meaningful traces, potential crucial evidence of what these lives were about.

Objects almost crowd out people, while at the same time the brusqueness of the presentation undercuts any inclination merely to gawk at luxurious surfaces. The things are here not so much to impress the audience as to impress the characters. This is a society whose every member is a connoisseur, if not of aesthetics then of cost or social appropriateness. (Newland gets an early inkling of Ellen’s independent personality as he examines the stylistically unusual paintings in her parlor.) The culture that so carefully polices expression is also a culture of display, its key moments played out in settings—monumental ballrooms and parks and museums—that are calculated to impart a hint of ceremonial grandeur to the most banal transactions. The things and performances, though, have a life of their own. The paintings and plays and operas suggest a counterworld of overflowing emotions and violent melodramatic situations from which their audience is closed off. These very privileged New Yorkers cannot rise to the expressive intensity of their own possessions.

In counterpoint to that mass of collections and rites and constricting schedules—whole lives are planned in advance—there are Newland’s tentative movements to break away, from the moment he comes within Ellen’s orbit. She is the only being in this closed system who, having been brought up elsewhere, in more disorderly circumstances, finds herself alienated from its values. This does not make her free, merely aware of what freedom is, unlike the docile May, the pure product of her world, embodying an artificially nurtured female innocence and presumed fragility on which the social machinery somehow, for reasons it cannot even articulate, depends. The denizens of this world are so tightly interconnected that one misstep poses a threat to all, and the attenuated thread of longing that forms between Newland and Ellen becomes that danger.

The film’s elaborate interlocking mechanisms acquire their fullest meaning through the performances of Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer. Their magnetic attraction generates a real violence—not the violence of Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, but in the world of this film a comparably chaotic force. All the feeling otherwise kept at bay surges up in every instant that they are together, even if conveyed only by the most fleeting glance or the slightest vocal tremor. At the outset, Day-Lewis perfectly conveys Newland as someone who shares his society’s concern for appearances, enjoying his self-image as a more authentic artistic connoisseur than those around him, the one who shows up at the opera or theater just in time to savor a single favorite moment. He is likewise well aware of his gift for creating a pleasing appearance in each of his interactions, a man of easy charm that is very much on display in his courtship of May. He has not yet had to question the underpinnings of his world.

Ellen throws him off-balance and forces him to improvise new attitudes, new arguments. Day-Lewis enacts with precision Newland’s minute adjustments and hesitations and bursts of reckless sincerity. Under Ellen’s influence, his finely tuned surface becomes unsettled. Rawer feelings of desire and jealousy and frustrated anger emerge. Just by being there, Ellen will teach him how to go to pieces, how to become sloppy with emotion. Paradoxically, it is not only the force of his passion but the strength of character enabling him to keep it under control that appeals to her. The more he lets himself go, the more she will see him as just another of the male harassers and seducers she has known.

Pfeiffer’s performance is the riskier, gathering power steadily. She comes close to making Ellen a woman of our own time—or at any rate, a refugee from a world the rest of the characters have not experienced—disturbing the inhabitants of high society with her unfiltered reactions, and baffling Newland with her refusal to buy into his romantic fantasy of running off to some place of imagined freedom. The film hinges on the advances and retreats between these two, as they circle around each other without ever quite connecting beyond those fleeting kisses that carry such explosive force because everything else is held back. That flickering of near contact becomes visible as Ellen, alone with Newland in a rural cottage, advances toward him as he stands with his back to her and puts her arms around him—a moment imagined by him, we are made aware, as a jump cut shows her where she was, on the other side of the room. Their frustration becomes ours, until we are made to share the sense that the slightest, inevitably truncated contact is indeed the point on which the whole world pivots.

This is one of a number of moments where the film pointedly breaks away from the sense of space it has taken pains to establish. Sweeps of solid color fill the screen. Ellen faces the camera and speaks to Newland directly from another place: Newland’s imagining as he reads her letter, perhaps, but certainly a disruption of any cinematic illusion. Voices go mute as Newland stops listening. Later, as Newland and Ellen part company after sharing tea in another fraught encounter, she rises and walks away and fades into nothingness; a moment later, Newland himself fades in like fashion, leaving a very solid-looking deserted veranda. This is followed by the mysteriously powerful shot of a crowd of nearly identical businessmen in bowler hats filling the widescreen frame as they advance in slow motion through the streets of New York—the first suggestion in the film of a teeming, industrious world beyond the confines of Newland and his set. Such devices boldly shake up the apparent solidity of this very materialistic world of old New York, revealing in an instant its vulnerability and evanescence.

Newland is himself a director, framing the scenes of daily life as paintings or theatrical tableaux, but he cannot quite find a way to make Ellen a permanent part of the composition. In the film’s most deliberately beautiful sequence, Newland—by now married to May—watches Ellen from a distance as she stands at the water’s edge in Newport, telling himself that he will go to her only if she turns around before the sailboat out on the water crosses the Lime Rock Lighthouse. Ellen stands still, looking outward; the boat continues its leftward movement toward and then past the lighthouse, an image bisected as if to mark the moment of definitive loss, but it is of course a loss stage-managed by Newland, who fails to imagine that she has been aware of his presence all along.

Likewise, the dramatic staging of Newland’s final confrontation with May, with each posed at either extremity of the screen, embodies his sense of hypertheatricality, as the scene builds toward the obligatory climactic face-off of the classic well-made play. He imagines he is about to announce that he is leaving her in order to follow Ellen. But that stylized formality is succeeded by a jarringly different instant. As May sweetly but firmly tells Newland that he can’t travel and proceeds to let him know of her pregnancy (the pregnancy she used to get Ellen to leave New York once and for all), she moves toward him in a series of quick broken shots, finally, improbably, appearing to loom over him, for once a threatening figure. The effect is like the revelation of a hidden personality in a horror movie.

The horror is Newland’s at grasping that his fantasies about an alternate future have been a delusion. The woman to whom he has consistently condescended has a strength of purpose he altogether lacks. Winona Ryder has been held in reserve all this time to reveal her full force at the last possible moment. It was this image of May that Scorsese described (in a 1993 interview with Gavin Smith) as an early focal point in his preparation of the film: “Later on I figured out that as she gets up from the chair we should do it in three cuts, three separate close-ups, because I think he’ll never forget that moment the rest of his life. He’ll play it back many times.” It is the closing of a trap—the trap into which Newland was born, and of which the film has been from the start a description.

That, however, is not quite the end: we are left with the extended epilogue of Newland in old age, meditating on the outcome of his life and rejecting for reasons he can barely express the chance for a reunion with Ellen in Paris. The compound of emotions that Scorsese distills here gives this most musically constructed film the sublimest possible coda.

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