Shock waves went through the film community when the news came out that Martin Scorsese would direct Edith Wharton’s 1920 adapted novel, The Age of Innocence. Is it true that Martin Scorsese, the director of such films as Goodfellas, Mean Streets, and Raging Bull, is going to direct a historical romantic drama set during the 1870s Victorian Period? The Age of Innocence is the story of Newland Archer, a wealthy New York society attorney who is newly engaged to a naïve, innocent society girl, May Welland. During his courtship with May, he falls in love with May’s cousin, the worldly, bohemian Countess Ellen Olenska, a woman separated from her husband and contemplating divorce. An idea that was unheard of at that time. This movie is so much more than a romantic drama. It demonstrates how silently powerful society was during the late 19th century. If you say or do the wrong thing and go against society’s strict moral code, your life will be ruined in a second, over in the blink of an eye. There’s not much difference between the way society ran the world then versus how the mob would handle things. One wrong move, and you’re gone. Now you’re talking Scorsese’s language.
Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese adapted Wharton’s book for this 1993 film. Jay sent him the book thinking that Scorsese would be interested in the subject matter, and he was right. Scorsese was drawn to the idea that no matter what the time period is, we are still the same human beings, except we are greatly affected by that time period’s cultural expectations, rituals, rules, and customs telling us how to behave, how we’re expected to live our lives, including love, marriage, birth, and death. The question he wanted to examine is, “what makes us the same?”
The film is narrated by the smooth voice of Joanne Woodward, bringing to life Wharton’s exact words from her novel explaining this complicated Victorian world to the audience. Wharton’s novel is an elegy to the upper-class New York of her childhood. “They all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world. The real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” Newland Archer is played with restraint by Daniel Day-Lewis. Daniel provides Newland the right amount of emotion that ekes out on his face with every word. Michelle Pfieffer was cast as the Countess Ellen Olenska. Michelle gives the character a modern flair in her look and feel. She looks like she came from the future and is slightly out of place for the 1870s. May Welland is played by Winona Ryder. Winona, with her classic looks and delivery, gives May the necessary balance to fit into society’s norms while keeping her world perfect.
Countess Ellen Olenska has just returned to New York from Europe. She is separated from her philandering, abusive husband. Wealthy Newland Archer is recently engaged to Ellen’s cousin May Welland, a high society maiden who appears sweet, simple, and slightly vapid. This engagement brings together two of New York’s powerful and influential families. It’s important to try to avoid gossip at all costs, and Ellen’s presence is causing a stir. She doesn’t like to follow the strict rules of social etiquette and how a woman is supposed to behave during this time. In fact, most of the time, she doesn’t even realize she’s breaking the rules. The Welland, Archer, and Mingott families are trying to help Ellen assimilate back into society, and she isn’t helping her own case. May’s mother, Mrs. Welland, is frustrated. “It’s a mistake for Ellen to be seen parading up Fifth Avenue with Julius Beauford only the day after her arrival. His behavior is always so flagrant.”
Newland is frustrated with the incessant conversations and judgments about Ellen. He wants to talk about something more interesting than what Ellen wore and who she was with that day. Newland is assigned to handle Ellen’s legal affairs as she is seeking a divorce. Newland believes that she should be able to divorce, but a divorce would cause scandal for the family, so he dissuades her from doing so. The more time Newland and Ellen spend together, the closer they grow. Newland is attracted to Ellen’s open-minded and independent nature. She shows him a different way of thinking, living, and loving in the strict Victorian world. She is the opposite of May, who appears calm and kind and possibly empty underneath her traditional, conservative, perfect exterior. As Newland gets to know Ellen and falls in love with her, he’s defending her honor and character.
Newland, troubled by his feelings for Ellen, travels to St. Augustine, where May is vacationing, with the intent of persuading her to push up their wedding date. May suspects he is in love with someone else and allows him to leave the engagement, but he denies any indiscretions. Newland comes back to New York and visits Ellen. As they declare their love for each other, Newland says he’ll break off his engagement for her. Ellen pushes Newland away, saying, “Newland, 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. And I can’t go back to that way of thinking. Don’t you see? I can’t love you unless I give you up”.
May agrees to move up the wedding date, and they are married. For a while, Newland can forget about Ellen, but his feelings return when he sees her again. Newland becomes obsessed with seeing her whenever he can until he can’t go on anymore. Being married to May and in love with Ellen is too much for him to bear. They agree to have a final get-together, but they are seen by friends on the street together having an evening conversation. May has a secret meeting with Ellen, and suddenly Ellen decides to move back to Europe. Newland and May hold their first dinner as a married couple for Ellen. After the event, Newland starts to tell May that he needs a break and wants to travel. May tells him that he can’t because she’s pregnant and that she told Ellen, which is why she’s moving back to Europe. Newland realizes that all his closest friends and family members have secretly conspired to keep him and Ellen apart. He thought that no one knew about the two of them, and everyone knew. The scandalous situation has been erased without anyone ever speaking of it to either him or Ellen. Newland miscalculates May. It doesn’t even occur to him that May is capable of any type of manipulation in thought, act, or word. She plays the last hand, and there’s no hand that he can counterplay. The irony is that he is incapable of it. Newland is a caged bird. Ellen tried to open the door for him, but he couldn’t fly away. Mary shut the door and threw away the key.
Newland and May live out their lives having four grown children when May passes away. Newland has been a faithful husband and a loving father. At 57, Newland and his oldest son, Ted, travel to Paris, where Ellen lives. Ted has arranged for his father and Ellen to meet. Newland has not seen her in over 25 years. Ted tells his father that May confessed on her deathbed that “…she knew we were safe with you…because once when she asked you to, you gave up the one thing you wanted most.” Newland says that “she never asked me”. Newland sends Ted up to see her saying, “Just tell her I’m old fashioned. That should be enough.” Newland slowly walks down the street after Ted walks up to her apartment.
This script was critical to the success of this movie. To distill Edith Wharton’s verbose, intricately written prose and turn it into something cinematic is an act of pure genius. A period piece such as this needs to have a strong script. The film can’t rely on any special effects, car crashes, dinosaurs, or monsters for audience impact. Details and subtleties provide the key elements, such as how a word or sentence is phrased, the tilt of the head, a whisper, small bodily movements, passivity, not saying what’s wrong, or the silence in a moment.
The film examines the questions: What did Victorian society dictate as “normal” and acceptable versus how someone would want to live their life. During that time, people didn’t want to be considered odd or different. It is human nature to want to fit in but at what cost? Should women and men share the same freedoms? Newland and Ellen believed that they should, which was quite controversial during a time when women were repressed and restricted. Women were thought of as virtuous, delicate creatures. A woman’s role was that of a dutiful wife and to accept that life, whatever it may be. They didn’t have the freedom or autonomy to live their lives the way they wanted to. They had to stay in marriages with abusive/philandering husbands. Divorce was not possible without being ostracized in society. Ironically, husbands’ lives weren’t ruined if they had indiscretions, but a women’s lives would be if she conducted herself the same way. Someone’s life could be eradicated. Society would just act like they didn’t exist anymore. Sexual repression was the norm. Nothing happens between Newland and Ellen other than a few kisses. They are judged by what they could have done even though they end up not fully consummating their relationship.
Michael Ballhaus, a German cinematographer, worked together with Scorsese on several of his films, including Goodfellas. Scorsese and Ballhaus agreed that the film should have a combined look and feel similar to such films as “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” Jean Renoir films and Visconti films (The Leopard). Scorsese wanted sweeping views for key emotional moments. They needed to have the camera show the audience what was going on emotionally with the characters. The characters themselves weren’t allowed to express their emotions due to the social restrictions of the society and the century. This was accomplished with fades, fades to red, burnished lighting, burgundy, deep blacks, characters reading letters directly to the camera, and seeing images in fragmented shots and dissolves. For the ball scene, the camera speeds up and slows down in the middle of the shot. Ballhaus and Scorsese wanted to provide a different visual expression of that time. Quite often, he would move his camera independently of the character and take the audience’s gaze toward objects in the background. Another example is the decision to use old paintings instead of actual shots for Newland and May’s honeymoon destinations. The film was shot on Super35 versus full frame. Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited Scorsese’s film for over 50 years, did a wonderful job with this film. Schoonmaker and Scorsese had to find the right pace for the film since this was a period piece. She quite often utilized rapid editing to convey action. For example, when May reveals her pregnancy to Newland, Schoonmaker and Scorsese decided to edit the scene with three quick broken shots and three separate close-ups until May is standing over Newland like a foreboding figure. A moment that Newland will never forget and will playback for the rest of his life.
Elmer Bernstein, the composer, created a score that was nominated for an Academy award. Similar to Ballhaus’ approach, Bernstein needed the music to convey emotion that wasn’t allowed to be expressed onscreen with these characters. Bernstein’s score moves easily from Brahms-like waltzes when life is easy and light, to moody with uneasy tones that are almost sinister when things aren’t what they seem to passionate swells of strings for unrequited love.
To show the opulence of the Gilded Age, no expense was spared, and every meticulous detail was carried out for the production. Whether it be replicating a one-of-a-kind Thomas Cole painting or finding bucolic artwork from the Hudson River School, along with the architecture, design of the interiors, flowers, food, china, silverware, and horse-drawn carriages. The period costumes were elaborate, refined, and embellished attire. In the film, we see May and Ellen dressed in opposite colors. May is dressed in virginal creams and whites, and Ellen in harlot red, black, and dark colors. During that time period, the average girl needed many styles of dress stashed in her closet, including dresses for balls, dinners, walks, and carriage rides, in addition to her country attire. The actors were even sent to classes to learn how to speak, move about and behave in this lavish world.
The Age of Innocence is set in a time when nothing and no one was truly innocent. Things were covered up or repressed to a point where people couldn’t even live a life of their choosing. It’s the classic tale of wanting what you can’t have and having what you don’t want. There’s no innocence in that. In fact, Scorsese once said, “it’s the most violent film I ever made.”
The Age of Innocence received critical acclaim, along with being nominated in several categories for the 67th Academy Awards. The film won Best Costume Design and was nominated for: Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Winona Ryder, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Art Direction. Miriam Margolyes, who played Mrs. Mingott, won the Best Supporting Actress BAFTA in 1994.
Written by Veronica L. Walinski