Martin Scorsese’s characters often talk in expressively rhythmic fashions, their discursive ramblings growing more complex and revealing the longer they speak—a tendency that’s embodied by the scene in Goodfellas in which gangsters debate whether or not Joe Pesci’s charismatic and terrifying character is “funny.” This sort of conversation is often poetic, suggesting a street-wise iambic verse and complementing the more obvious affinities that Scorsese’s films share with the musical genre, such as swooping choreography that’s timed to songs that the filmmaker adores.
In this context, Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t quite the departure for the filmmaker that it’s often made out to be. The film is set in a rarefied age—upper-crust New York City society of the 1870s—that’s worlds away from Scorsese’s contemporary working-class gangsters, but it’s concerned nevertheless with conversation as an intricate form of warfare. Unlike those of many of Scorsese’s films, the verbal confrontations of The Age of Innocence aren’t followed by physical violence, which can clear the air for the characters and the audience, serving as a kind of emotional orgasm. Wharton created a world that thrives on innuendo and subtext, which Scorsese informs with his own neurotic maximalism. As Joanne Woodward’s narrator says of The Age of Innocence’s New Yorkers: “They all lived in a kind of hieroglyphics world. The real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”
This is the world of the young attorney Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), and Scorsese renders this realm’s “hieroglyphics” with obsessive, devotional flair. The film opens at a theater that’s tellingly featuring a production of Faust, and Scorsese’s camera seems to be everywhere at once. One moment we’re drinking in the performance’s bright yellow roses, which become a recurring symbol throughout the film, expressive of Newland’s longing for Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), the cousin of his fiancée, May Welland (Winona Ryder). And in another moment, Scorsese’s camera closely surveys the pocket watches, napkins, glasses, vests, dresses, and jewelry of the people in the audience, cataloguing their customs with zoological scrutiny. Whispers tell the audience that Ellen is an outcast for leaving her husband under dodgy circumstances, though her family, the Mingotts, are standing by her. But preciously few sentiments are uttered directly, just a few scraps of gossip that can be discerned as the Faust performance rages on.
When nothing can be said directly, every element of life is informed with a ripe sense of innuendo that’s suppressive as well as erotic. When Newland meets Ellen for the first time in years, in the Mingotts’ opera balcony, his reluctance to kiss her hand speaks volumes. He shakes it instead, and Ellen clearly remembers this gesture later in the film, offering her hand to Newland in a different manner, this time anticipating that it will be shaken rather than kissed. Such minute behavioral tremors—of which there are many in the film—are the very manna of this world, and failure to recognize them potentially conjures social destruction. These sequences pave the way for the film’s great love scene, in which Newland unbuttons Ellen’s glove, as if it’s a corset, and kisses her wrist. In a rigid age, such action makes for an explosion of emotion.
Scorsese regrets the tragedy of denial while celebrating the heightening of senses that springs from possessing the discipline to care for something one cannot have. In The Age of Innocence, he captures the exquisite agony and pleasure of passion that’s forced to remain theoretical, which is one of the overriding themes of Scorsese’s career, and which was manifestly made explicit in the director’s Silence. To nurse a yearning for something one can’t have, like a barely stoked ember, requires a distinct mixture of courage and idiocy. And such disappointment—and such willful diminishment—paradoxically reminds Scorsese’s protagonists that they’re alive.
Following Wharton’s example, Scorsese accepts The Age of Innocence’s flamboyantly wealthy and corrupt characters as they are without indulging in fashionably retrospective editorializing. Repression and class snobbery breed great art, which Scorsese, as the working-class boy who grew up to become a master aesthete, refuses to take for granted. Beautiful tracking shots savor the paintings hanging on the walls of vast hallways and dining rooms, offering clues into America’s self-conscious connection to British culture. And one ballroom sequence has the lavish sweep and emotional grandeur of the dancing scenes from Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, similarly suggesting that an American class is encapsulated by the irresolvable gorgeousness of decadence. Scorsese understands that Newland is a passenger in his own life, though he’s a character of stature for recognizing this submission. Such recognition shows that Newland, while trapped, is also awake.
This image has a robust, earthy materiality. One can discern the distinctive textures of various clothing, as well of the many paintings and ornamentation that defines this 19th-century world. The color spectrum of the image is vast: Some hues are bright to the point of luridness, while others are subtly varnished. Reds, blacks, and yellows are particularly feverish, and skin tones have an almost impressionist translucency. There’s a healthy and stable amount of grain in the image as well as a softness that’s appropriate to the source, particularly in the haunting scene where Newland regards Ellen from afar as she gazes upon a lighthouse. The soundtrack is full and rich in detail, forging a diegetic score out of the clanking of silverware and the chopping of cigars and treading of footsteps. Meanwhile, Elmer Bernstein’s gorgeous and heartbreaking score is accorded central prominence on the soundtrack, and balanced nimbly with punctuations of Joanne Woodward’s narration.
A handful of interviews, recorded for this Criterion disc in 2017, succinctly reveal quite a bit about The Age of Innocence’s overwhelming sense of detail. Martin Scorsese discusses his various influences with interviewer Kent Jones, including the films of Luchino Visconti, which invest period narratives with a similarly visceral and lavish sweep. Co-screenwriter Jay Cocks gets into the nuts and bolts of adapting Edith Wharton’s novel, which he says was surprisingly easy, taking just a few weeks in comparison to the decades that were spent writing and researching Gangs of New York and Silence. Production designer Dante Ferretti elaborates on his admiration for Scorsese, though he does say that he feels that Michael Ballhaus’s extraordinary cinematography was too bright, failing to reflect the fact that this world was defined by candlelight. As compensation, Ferretti would add candles into scenes as narrative justification. Costume designer Gabriella Pescucci says that critics have overdone the Visconti comparisons, correctly insisting that Scorsese’s film stands on its own, while cataloguing the art that she consulted to create her intricate period garb. Pescucci memorably insists that a costume can define an audience’s attitude toward a character, and so great care must be taken in terms of clothing design and selection. Cumulatively, one comes to understand that film creation is as fragile and sensitive as the world of Edith Wharton’s novels. The theatrical trailer and an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien round out an evocative, astutely assembled package.
This breathtaking Criterion disc is most important for historical posterity, as it correctly insists that The Age of Innocence is an astonishing achievement that belongs in the canon of classic American cinema.