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.