The Age of Innocence

(Martin Scorsese, USA, 1993)


Is there a big-budget Hollywood movie of the 1980s or '90s anywhere near as extraordinary as Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence?

The film is a miracle: emotionally intense, artistically adventurous, completely unique in its tone and texture. Scorsese and writer Jay Cocks have taken Edith Wharton's examination of social mores in turn of the century New York and turned it into a true cinema melodrama, paying profound homage to classics by Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, 1948), Max Ophuls (Madame De., 1953) and Luchino Visconti (The Leopard, 1963).

The film came as something of a shock to those (including myself) who worship previous Scorsese masterpieces such as Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990). These films derived their power from a special tension, a contradiction between the profane, socially determined behaviour of Scorsese's anti-heroes, and the sacred themes and euphoric emotions to which their actions gave rise.

The Age of Innocence profoundly alters this equation, for all the energy and rapture of the story is sublimated, and comes to suffuse bodies, events and objects in a trembling, fragile way.

The story of Newland (Daniel Day-Lewis, giving a deeply soulful performance) is not a happy one. Vacillating between his vacuous fiancée May (Winona Ryder) and the mysterious outcast Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer), Newland dreams of a better life but cannot reach out to it. All the characters are imprisoned by the protocols, codes and vicious double binds of their fading, aristocratic world. In a sense, the film takes the female Gothic story beloved of 1940s Hollywood – a heroine trapped and forced to sacrifice all for family duty – and neatly inverts it into a chillingly tragic male melodrama.

Those critics who have described the film, whether in damnation or praise, as 'in the style of' Merchant Ivory productions such as Howards End (1992) are way off the mark. The costumes and interiors may be lush, but repeated viewing reveals how utterly idiosyncratic Scorsese's stylistic choices are. The angles, gestures and dramatic rhythms are spellbinding in their strangeness, more akin to the experimental cinema of Chantal Akerman than any quality arthouse confection. Only those who can totally surrender themselves to Scorsese's commanding vision will really experience the emotional depth-charge of The Age of Innocence.

MORE Scoresese: The Aviator, The Blues, Bringing Out the Dead, Cape Fear, The King of Comedy, Kundun, Rolling Thunder Revue, Casino, The Irishman, After Hours, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ

MORE stately literary classics: The Golden Bowl, The Remains of the Day, Mansfield Park

© Adrian Martin August 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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