Despite being a bloodless, sexless period drama, The Age of Innocence is one of Martin Scorsese’s most brutally affecting films.
Coming from the same man who directed Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s claim that The Age of Innocence was “the most violent [film] I ever made” might sound bizarre. The 1993 romantic period drama, based on Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel of the same name, is a lush, sweeping, and undeniably gorgeous recreation of Gilded Age Manhattan society — but it’s also entirely devoid of explicit gore, sex, or even profanity (the most heated it gets are a single use each of “hell” and “bastard”). How, then, does Scorsese make The Age of Innocence’s “exquisite romantic pain” feel so visceral?
A video by Margarita G. of Is This Just Fantasy? analyzes the techniques that Scorsese uses to bring the film’s simmering, impossible passion to the surface, disguised in the language of conventional romantic fantasy. The Age of Innocence centers on Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a successful New York bachelor planning to marry May Welland (Winona Ryder), a demure and equally upstanding young woman. Yet their picture-perfect engagement is complicated by the arrival of May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), a New York-born heiress freshly returned home after an unhappy marriage to a Polish count. The worldly Ellen — who dares to assert her autonomy by actively seeking a divorce from her abusive husband — is effectively a 19th-century Veronica to May’s seemingly guileless Betty.
Newland falls hard for Ellen and she reciprocates, though both are highly concerned with protecting May’s naïveté from any knowledge of their affair. Yet the two “star-crossed” lovers are drawn to each other not out of any mutual understanding, empathy, or even lust — but because of their reciprocal fantasies. Newland sees Ellen as an exotic, unconditional escape across the Atlantic Ocean, far away from the constricting expectations of New York high society. In turn, she sees him as a symbol of the noble, benevolent, and aspirational stability of New York family life that she associates with her own childhood and has since never been able to get back. The cruel joke, of course, is that neither one of these utopian fictions truly exist, yet Newland and Ellen desperately project what they cannot have onto each other.
“They all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs,” the narrator tells us in a line directly cribbed from Wharton. Indeed, romance in The Age of Innocence travels through indirect, sometimes unbearably oblique channels. As Margarita herself observes, Newland and Ellen’s passion is “displaced onto objects” such as a chastely kissed shoe or a gifted bouquet of flowers. The secrecy of their affair forces them to imbue even the smallest gestures and items with a ritualistic weight — the same way an archaeologist might endlessly speculate on the meaning of an artifact without ever truly knowing what it once meant to the living.
Arguably the most devastating moment in the film is when May implies that she has been aware of their affair for the whole time — a revelation that shatters both the construction of her own “innocence” and Newland’s self-delusion of nobility. For the first time, his decision to carry on with Ellen in secret is framed not as a chivalrous and selfless choice, but rather a complicit, ultimately cowardly one.
By the film’s end, when Newland is granted a second chance of sorts to reconnect with Ellen in Paris after May’s death, he seems to have accepted the insurmountable distance between his idyllic image of Ellen and the possibly disillusioning reality of what it would take to forge an honest relationship with her. “Just say I’m old-fashioned,” he tells his son, almost wistfully, as he urges him to meet her. In any other film, we would end on a gracefully aged Ellen falling into Newland’s arms, or even meeting his gaze from her apartment balcony with a wry and knowing smile — but here, we don’t get to see her at all. It’s a quietly heartbreaking finale to what’s arguably Scorsese’s most wrenching drama — a film that seems all the more tragic because none of its characters dare to acknowledge it as such.
Watch the video below for a comprehensive analysis of how The Age of Innocence handles the power of nostalgia.