The director's 1993 take on Wharton's novel positions upper class New York as a cutthroat world equal to those of his gangster films
In 1993, having made Goodfellas and Cape Fear (his most iconic film, followed by another violent genre film very much in keeping with his canon to date), the great director Martin Scorsese followed it up with one of his wildest about-turns, a complete 180 into the terrain of Austen-esque period drama, adapted from the 1920s novel by Edith Wharton, with all the arch dialogue, stiffness and social convention such an exercise calls for. It’s every bit as superb as you'd expect.
Pointedly, The Age of Innocence opens on its central characters watching Faust at the opera; this is set in a milieu where the obscenely rich are constantly bargaining with themselves over their material riches and worldly pleasures, seemingly omnipotent in their judgement and knowledge. It is this which eventually ties our protagonist Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis, stiff as he often was in his younger days, but appropriate for this material) into knots, even as he presumes himself above the petty squabbling and pretentiousness of his peers.
The love triangle that centres the film breaks him apart: at first engaged to the sweet and seemingly naive May Welland (Winona Ryder), he falls for her cousin, the worldlier and married Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). With Olenska shunned by 1870s New York high society (precisely because of her failing marriage), it is instead her and Newland who are naive, haplessly wandering around with the assumption that love conquers all.
Scorsese has gone on record in the past describing The Age of Innocence as his “most violent film,” despite it featuring nary a drop of blood nor a curse word. He might be right. The Age of Innocence is absolutely drenched in the underlying violence that gives these people their insane wealth, and yet all of it is kept offscreen: servants come and go, the luscious artworks that adorn the sets are casually remarked upon, the fact that one high-ranking family are former slave masters is surreptitiously mentioned once in voiceover and never again. But the psychosis and cognitive dissonance it takes to retain a level head in this world are present in every scene, its characters gently smiling but hiding daggers of gossip behind their backs.
Scorsese, for his part, treats these people with the contempt they deserve, alongside the tiniest sliver of empathy for those who play the game most efficiently. It is, I think, the best approach to the high society costume drama that is often such a blight on the filmmaking industry on this side of the pond, where we’re a little bit too deferential to class and convention. Scorsese – that master stylist – gives us one of his most lavish productions, with long swooning takes taking in every inch of detail (it looks especially luscious in this restored reissue). But he’s keenly aware of the meaning of said detail; it’s a system that imprisons his characters, and on a wider scale one that imprisons everybody beneath them.
The links between Scorsese and one of his idols, the great Italian Luchino Visconti, are ever-present here, with Visconti's 1960 classic The Leopard a constant touchstone. That film is also very much about the rules the aristocracy make for themselves and one could slide The Leopard’s most famous line into The Age of Innocence without batting an eyelid: “Everything must change so everything can stay the same.” Given that these aristocrats are Americans, and thus have no reason to hold onto the old ways, such conservatism appears even more excessive, ugly, and yes, violent. A masterpiece for most directors, merely excellent for Martin Scorsese.
The Age of Innocence is re-released in UK cinemas on 17 March.Where to watch