I feel like The Age of Innocence gets a lot of flack for being a Scorsese picture without gangsters, guns, or blood on the walls violence. I can’t really find too much injustice in that. It doesn’t have those things, but maybe that’s a big part of the reason I love it. I’m not a big Scorsese expert (getting there hopefully), but he actually goes outside of the violence and the gangsters quite a bit. Even if the results aren’t perfect, I love the concept of people going outside of their comfort zone and trying something they don’t normally do. It’s so hard to do well, and as in this case, even when it is done well people don’t expect it so they end up going “what….?” But regardless of Scorsese’s reputation for tackling completely different subject matter, The Age of Innocence is a great film that I immediately loved.
Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a New York lawyer from a prominent family, eagerly engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder) also from a prominent family. It’s basically perfect, socially speaking, but there’s another problem that materializes. Countess Ellen Olenska (Michele Pfeiffer) is May’s cousin come back to New York after scandalously leaving her abusive European husband. At first she is ostracized for seeking a divorce, but the Wellands and the Archers do their best to use May and Newland’s engagement to distract everybody from Ellen’s scandalous doings. Newland, being a lawyer, is asked to review Ellen’s case, and through this gets to know her better. At this point it’s obvious that these two are going to fall in love and the society of New York is not going to be happy about it.
There are two main things in this movie: the love story and the societal machinations that get in the way. The kind of ironic part is that their similar reactions to society is what brings them together in the first place. Newland listens to her saying all of this stuff that he’s been thinking about the people he’s with and how they act, but he’s never said any of this and is surprised that someone actually would. This is most obviously apparent when she walks over to him (which apparently women aren’t supposed to do), makes fun of some of the people they both know, and remarks “it seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it the copy of another country.” This line is sort of problematic for me as I am not particularly up to snuff on social customs of Europe as opposed to England or America, but since Ellen has felt the need to escape to Europe and then escape back again, I gather that the rigid social restrictions are in all of these places. America was a chance for freedom for whoever went there, but unfortunately this didn’t work out.
So at first, Newland is basically her lawyer, but they are always friendly. He comes over to her house, and I wasn’t sure how unusual this was. There’s this other guy who comes over quite a bit, he’s a realtor, but he’s not in great social standing so I wasn’t sure. Regardless, this means a lot to both of them. They speak frankly about how Ellen should behave that will draw the least attention to herself, but also how to best get her what she wants. He advises her against a divorce (which he might not have done if he wasn’t in denial of loving her) because it will basically kill any social position she has by being related to the Wellands. “Our laws favor divorce but our customs do not.” Once Newland realizes how attracted he is to this woman, he tries even harder to marry May as soon as possible.
May is a really interesting character, and Winona Ryder does a great job with her. She was actually nominated for an academy award, but lost to Anna Paquin in The Piano. At first, she seems really sweet and clueless. That’s only because that’s what she wants you to think. She’s mastered the art of moving in society so well that for a good portion of the film you don’t even realize she’s so calculating. Even if you do, I don’t think Newland does. Newland goes down to Florida to move up their wedding date, and May asks him if that’s really what he wants to do. If he’s really sure about marrying her, or if he just wants to move it up because there’s someone else. She cites a different example from the past and not Ellen, but I think she’s knows exactly what’s going on. Even if she doesn’t, she’s close enough so that her question has the same effect either way. I don’t think Newland fully realizes the force of social maneuvering that is coming to bear on him in this scene, but he will later. She’s using reverse psychology on him too, she wants to marry him and marry him she will. Not because she loves him, but because it’s the best thing to do socially. Her manipulation becomes more and more apparent as the film continues on.
He then goes back to Ellen, confesses his love for her, and basically asks her what he should do with his life. Ellen also loves him, of course, but still wants him to marry May. Now they will be doubly separated, so this seems just as contrary to their wishes as Ellen not divorcing her husband. Why does she do this? At first it seems she encourages the marriage for the unselfish reason that May would be hurt, but that’s not the whole story. She has to keep Newland himself, so that she’ll still love him. “You couldn’t be happy if it meant being cruel. If we act any other way I’ll be making you act against what I love in you most… I can’t love you unless I give you up.” This is particularly important for the remainder of the film, where Newland and May are married and Ellen is living in Washington or Boston or wherever she happens to be at the moment which is almost always not New York. They just try to keep this idea of the love they had (or could have had depending on how you look at it) from dying. This tension of them being separated never really finds any sort of release; they never go off together, Newland never tells May or anybody else, there’s just this never ending sense of torment that eventually just dissipates. I don’t want to give away the ending, but by the time the end of the film comes to it you wonder how much of their relationship was based on the ideal of flaunting society or meeting another cultured person or whatever the case may be, and how much was actual love or desire. Are they more satisfied being apart and cherishing the idea of what they could have had than actually having it? Who knows, but of course people change over time and there’s a big time elapse in the film, so that’s another possible explanation.
One of the many things I appreciated about the film was it’s use of a narrator, voiced by Joanne Woodward. It was especially helpful because a lot of times, as is the point of the story, the social interactions were so veiled and subtle from a 21st century point of view (and even more especially in my case as I’m not too good as social interaction) that they did require explanation. As things got more and more difficult for Newland to ever see Ellen even though they would just be talking, is was helpful to have someone telling me exactly how difficult it was. I have seen this movie twice, and I picked up on so much more the second time. There’s a specific moment when it becomes obvious to anybody well-versed in these types of things (not me) that Newland and Ellen are not going to see each other for a long time, perhaps never. I wouldn’t have gotten it unless the narrator helped me out. She said it, and I was like “where are you getting this information from?” but I knew by then to trust her because she knew what was going on. The second time I was able to get past being thrown completely off-balance by her pronouncement and actually see some of the signs that pointed to it. I still don’t exactly know how it became obvious in this particular scene, but I was aware of the fact in general. So the narration is really helpful, not to mention giving the film some of its most eloquent lines.
There is a reoccurring use of flowers in the film. They are referred to and bought for people throughout the film but I wasn’t really sure what they represented specifically, but they kept showing up so much that I figured they had to represent something. The only thing I can really think of is the obvious standby of romance blooming and whatnot, but that really seems too easy and they appear in ways that kind of seem to contradict that. The realtor guy as well as Newland sends Ellen flowers, but the flowers that Newland (her actual love interest) sends her are yellow. That was sort of strange from my point of view because usually red is used to represent passion, and thinking along those lines I would have expected the red flowers to come from Newland and not the realtor guy. Scorsese also did the color flash thing similar to the thing that Hitchcock used in Marnie. Scorsese uses yellow and red at various moments, and again I can’t quite figure out why. I found it odd that they were used in the beginning of the film quite often but as the film went on they basically went away, and again, not sure why. There’s plenty of stuff for me to pay attention to next time around.
I love The Age of Innocence, first because the romance is engrossing and second because the social manipulation that happens around it is even more engrossing. It’s actually based on the 1920 novel by Edith Wharton, which I must read. I’ve heard that this film is a pretty faithful adaptation, so I’m betting the novel is just as good as the film. Scorsese also does some really cool stuff in the film, like this one shot where all of these men are walking down the street in exactly the same way, another when someone is looking through opera glasses and the images are transitioning really quickly, and also some cool dissolves of lights turning on. Not really sure how much some of this has to do with the themes of the film specifically, but they were really cool to see so I just had to put them in there. Like I said, I’m not a Scorsese expert and it’s too early to declare this my favorite film of his, but it is near the top of the ones I have seen so far.
“Please don’t ask me, I don’t speak your language.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars