The Age of Innocence (1993) is something of a departure for Martin Scorsese, who has made a career directing violent crime movies. Yet there is something about it that is not unlike the worlds of Raging Bull (1980), Mean Streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990). Where those movies were about characters living in a moral vacuum, these characters live by a set of social rules so strict they border on thought control. Nevertheless, they struggle with a lot of the same issues; loyalty, status, family obligation, etc. In Goodfellas, the characters could express themselves through physical violence, in The Age of Innocence they have to do it through etiquette. Which is more destructive? It’s difficult to tell.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer and he’s an interesting choice for this type of character. The role does not call for his usual method of physical transformation, so he looks very much himself in the film. His performance is good, but it is complemented by the stronger work of Michelle Pfeiffer, who quietly asserts herself as one of the strongest-willed characters in a Scorsese film to date.
The Age of Innocence is about a man engaged to a woman, in love with another. Today, that might be a solvable problem, but in 1870s New York, things are not so simple. The rules of conduct are such that marrying for love is a radical thought, and ultimately, this story is a critique of the kind of society that would prevent Newland Archer from being with Countess Olenska. Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks wrote the screenplay together, adapting it from the novel by Edith Wharton. As with Taxi Driver (1976), it is as much a study of the environment as it is of the characters themselves. A narrator (Joanne Woodward) flies us through rooms and courtyards where the beauty of the architecture is contrasted by the ugliness of the characters’ personalities. As a period-piece, the movie is great and it’s nice to see how Scorsese, whose pictures are usually grimy and dark, manages this ambitious production. Dante Ferretti and Robert J. Franco deserve recognition for their work, as does costume designer, Gabriella Pascucci.
The Age of Innocence is a testament to Scorsese’s range as a filmmaker. His glitzy, methodical approach works surprisingly well with the material. Above all, the film is a commentary on the tendency for our surroundings to dictate our behavior for us, yet it poses a challenging question: if you had lived during this time, would you have made the same choice as Newland Archer?