THE AGE OF INNOCENCE - Martin Scorsese's brilliant period piece.
Updated: Jan 5
If there’s a tell-tale sign you shouldn’t listen to someone’s movie recommendations, it would be that they hold the belief that Martin Scorsese only ever makes gangster films. Unquestionably, the gangster genre is what Scorsese has both excelled at and come to define but if there’s a tell-tale sign you shouldn’t listen to certain movie recommendations, it would be the belief that Martin Scorsese only ever makes gangster films. It seems every year, there’s a new Goodfellas knock-off, but there’s a tremendous irony in the criticism of this “one-trick pony”, as it simply exposes the ignorance of the discussion.
The open-secret amongst those in the know is that there’s a bountiful back-catalogue of Scorsese films that have been overshadowed by his mainstream hits; there exists a Secret Scorsese Cinematic Universe. Kundun. After Hours. Cape Fear. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. All great films in their own right. However… if there had to be a reigning champion amongst the filmmaker’s overlooked works, it would be 1993’s The Age of Innocence. Based on Edith Warton’s 1920 novel, the notion of Scorsese helming this 19th Century romantic drama would justifiably come as a surprise to the average viewer. And yet, the director’s legendary flair for visual eccentricity pairs perfectly in the depiction of a world definedby excess. The film follows Newland Archer (played by the always great Daniel Day-Lewis), a newly-wed attorney from a wealthy New York family. His wife, May Welland (Winona Ryder), hails from an equally ultra-rich family and it’s implied that their marriage was heavily arranged by old-school social politics. However, it quickly becomes clear to Newland that his heart belongs to May’s cousin - Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfieffer) - and it is this quiet, forbidden longing he feels for her that Scorsese uses as the engine of the film.
A distinctly unique addition to Scorsese’s collection of New York stories, it pulses with the power and suffocation of the unspoken. Unspoken desires, unspoken judgements which govern the wealthy; where the secrets of other people’s lives are the most valuable commodities. Dizzying in its grandiosity, this film is Scorsese at his most formally romantic. Collaborating again with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas), the two frequently utilize bright Technicolor reds to depict the passion within Archer’s soul. In The Age of Innocence, one truly appreciates Scorsese’s penchant for merging emotion and visuals. You feel his adoration for classical film, particularly the stunning collaborations of the 40's legends Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as well as Luchino Visconti’s 1963 master work, The Leopard. And yet in spite of the classical influence, Scorsese blends the film with a stunning modernity only he can provide. It is among the most visually stunning films I’ve seen but also one of the most subtextual. Gestures, conversations... all seeping with emotions the characters’ couldn’t put words to if they tried.
Scorsese first received the novel in 1980 from his friend and collaborator, Jay Cocks, who suspected the romantic piece fell in line with the director’s interests. It took him seven years to get around to reading the book. Ironically enough, Scorsese cites this film as his “most violent,” due to its clashing between the emotional and the physical. It was originally supposed to be released in 1992, however Scorsese was granted an extra year to continue to edit it and ultimately dedicated it to his recently deceased father. Famed graphic designers Saul and Elaine Bass designed the highly-stylized credit sequence - a rare honor that a limited number of filmmakers can claim (Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilder to name a few).
But even with all that going for it, the film was a box-office disaster grossing only $32 million on a $34 million budget. Whether the public expected something else from the “gangster” director or just had no interest in a period romance is unclear. Regardless, the film received large critical acclaim and was nominated for five Academy Awards (winning for Costume Design). Roger Ebert sung its praises, eventually putting it in his Great Movies collection and calling it one of Scorsese’s best. And truly, it is. Eclipsed by an unparalleled pantheon of films, we find in The Age of Innocence a tender, passionate, romantic Scorsese treasure that - upon discovery- enriches its viewer for years to come.