Academy Award wins: Best Costume Design
Director Martin Scorsese is best known for his cinematic depictions of New York City and its varied inhabitants. Most of the time, these explorations are filtered through the prism of the contemporary Italian American experience, so when it was announced that Scorsese’s follow-up to the commercially successful CAPE FEAR (1992) would be an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence”—a novel about forbidden love in the elite social circles of Victorian-era Manhattan– many were left scratching their heads as to why a director so prized for his skill with visceral on-screen carnage and foul-mouthed, thuggish characters would want to take on a stuffy chamber drama. To his credit, Scorsese (along with co-screenwriter Jay Cocks and regular producer Barbara De Fina) manages to bring a sense of immediacy and devastating emotion to THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993) while expanding his own repertoire of New York-centric stories. Unlike CAPE FEAR, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE didn’t perform well at the box office, but it has managed to hold up as one of the finer, more-underrated films in his canon of work.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE takes place in nineteenth-century era New York City, complemented by brief detours into Paris, London and Manhattan’s eternal rival: Boston. Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis) is a wealthy lawyer navigating New York’s elite social scene. He’s recently become engaged to young socialite May Welland (Winona Ryder), but his feelings are complicated by the unexpected arrival of May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) from Europe. The Countess is having trouble integrating into New York society, on account of her failed marriage staining her dignity in the eyes of the Gotham elite. Newland agrees to represent her in her bid for a divorce, only to fall helplessly in lust with her. While it is eventually consummated, their affair is one carried out from afar, yearning longingly across vast distances and societal constraints. All the while, a narrator styled in the literary vein of Wharton herself gives context to the events, filling out the world with some much-needed exposition. Through it all, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE arises not as a love story, but a story about the specter of love when it goes unfulfilled, as well as the haunting, lingering nature of heartbreak.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE makes a clean break in terms of Scorsese’s gallery of recurring performers. Besides the absence of the obvious like Robert De Niro or Harvey Keitel, Scorsese doesn’t even see fit to include smaller favorites like Victor Argo or Verna Bloom. Instead, he opts to work with an entirely new ensemble of actors, headlined by the inimitable Daniel Day Lewis as the distinguished, yet conflicted protagonist. Caught between his emotions and a society that frowns upon them, Day Lewis is incredibly effective in his first performance for Scorsese. Day Lewis does not have a habit of working with the same director more than once, so his explosively iconic reunion with Scorsese on GANGS OF NEW YORK a decade later is a testament to the strength of their collaboration here. As the Countess Ellen Olenska, Michelle Pfeiffer channels the effortless cool and aloof-ness of the Scorsese blonde archetype. Winona Ryder ably rounds out the third corner of the central love triangle as Newland’s innocent and demure (but most definitely not oblivious) fiancé/wife May Welland. Scorsese himself shows up briefly in a nonspeaking cameo as the wedding photographer. The performances in THE AGE OF INNOCENCEare effective enough, struggling valiantly against the unwieldy, formal vernacular of the time.
Though Scorsese may be working with an entirely new set of actors in front of the camera, his key collaborators behind it are quite familiar indeed. Having sat out the cinematographer’s chair on CAPE FEAR, Scorsese’s regular DP Michael Ballhaus returns to lens THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. Once again shooting in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, Scorsese and Ballhaus imbue the otherwise-stuffy, staid Victorian chamber drama style with New Wave-inspired camerawork and compositions that subvert the formalized nature of the subject matter. The dynamic camera injects a great deal of life into the picture, using a frenzied (yet always motivated) variety of dolly, steadicam and crane moves. The straightforward, realistic presentation is given expressionistic flourish with picturesque matte painting backgrounds, theatrical stage-lighting setups (like an instance that dims the practical lights to focus on Newland), and the recurring use of crossfades and superimpositions to gracefully bridge each of editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s cuts to the next. Legendary titles designer Saul Bass, who first worked with Scorsese on the opening titles to CAPE FEAR, returns to render THE AGE OF INNOCENCE’s opening with a simplistic design that juxtaposes blooming flowers over lace textures meant to echo the film’s themes of passionate love being boxed in by societal constraints and expectations. Finally, Elmer Bernstein, who reworked Bernard Herrman’s CAPE FEAR score for Scorsese’s remake, jumps at the chance to create wholly original music as the composer for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. Bernstein’s lush, romantic score is quite fitting for a period costume drama, dovetailing quite nicely with Scorsese’s use of pre-existing, era-authentic march and waltz songs.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is about as far as it gets from other, career-defining Scorsese works like TAXI DRIVER (1976) or GOODFELLAS (1990), but the film fits into the director’s overall aesthetic in several unexpected ways. On a technical level, Scorsese uses recurring visual tropes like extended track shots (see the scene where Day Lewis walks us through a grand ballroom and its surrounding parlors), silent film-era iris shots, and actors breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to camera. Thematically, there’s the afore-mentioned Scorsese blonde character archetype—framed here (as in his earlier works) as the seductress that temps our male protagonist away from the brunette he’s currently involved with. One can draw several lines of similarity between Scorsese’s depiction of nineteen century New York WASPs and twentieth century Italian American immigrants: for instance, dinners are presented as large social events, and opera plays a large role in the entertainment culture.
As Scorsese’s expansion into the uncharted waters of the unfamiliar costume drama genre, THE AGE OF INNOCENCEpresents compelling insights into a culture and society that the filmmaker admittedly didn’t have much firsthand experience with growing up. The film is something of a companion piece to Scorsese’s other Day Lewis-starring work about 1800’s-era New York, GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), in that it shows the trials and tribulations of Manhattan’s elite social circles (while GANGS OF NEW YORK took on the perspective of the street people who envied them). While decidedly not a commercial success, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE was modestly successful on a critical level, resulting in an Oscar for Best Costume Design. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE’s real impact on Scorsese’s career, however, would be its status as the film on which Scorsese was working when his beloved father, Charles Scorsese, died. The elder Scorsese had made several cameos in his son’s work over the decades, and his passing was marked with THE AGE OF INNOCENCE’s dedication to his memory during the closing credits. For all of its mediocrity as a box office draw, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE has shown remarkable resilience in the years since—stubbornly refusing to be swept under the rug by its maker’s more famous, successful works. There’s a reason that Scorsese considers THE AGE OF INNOCENCE to be his most “violent” film– it’s a stunning look into the emotional inhumanity and carnage that even the most well-heeled and extensively educated people are capable of inflicting on each other.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is currently available on standard definition DVD from Columbia Pictures.
Produced by: Barbara De Fina
Written by: Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks
Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
Production Designer: Dante Ferretti
Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker
Titles by: Saul Bass
Music by: Elmer Bernstein