I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Martin Scorsese’s masterful 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s heartbreaking novel The Age of Innocence, which traces the tragic, Gilded Age romance between Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). No surprise there, as it’s quite possibly my favorite Scorsese film—which always shocks fans of Goodellas or Raging Bull to hear, and which to them I say, expand your horizons, kids. It’s Alain one of my absolute favorite Michelle Pfeiffer performances. So I think about it a lot. And I always think the same thing: it’s such a beautiful, exquisitely crafted love story, where every frame, every line of dialogue, every subtle movement the actors make contributes to the aching romance at the heart of its story. Scorsese understood the feelings behind Wharton’s prose. In a fascinating and thoughtful interview with Roger Ebert from 1993, the legendary director said:
“In 1980, [screenwriter] Jay [Cocks] gave me The Age of Innocence and said, ‘When you do your costume piece, when you do your romance, this is you.’ Not meaning, of course, that I’m Archer or Ellen. It was the spirit of it—the spirit of the exquisite romantic pain. The idea that the mere touching of a woman’s hand would suffice. The idea that seeing her across the room would keep him alive for another year. That’s something I guess that is part of me. He knew me, by that time, fairly well.”
Only someone who has truly felt for someone else in the way Newland and Ellen felt for each other could relate so perfectly to Wharton’s story of unconsummated love. Clearly, Scorsese and his frequent screenwriter Jay Cocks understood. The words Scorsese uses in that interview to describe his connection to the material are so powerful: “The idea that the mere touching of a woman’s hand would suffice. The idea that seeing her across the room would keep him alive for another year.” These ideas, as Scorsese calls them, make the film one of the most heart-wrenching romantic stories ever committed to celluloid.
In 1993, skeptics were a little unsure that the auteur behind very contemporary New York films like Mean Streets or Taxi Driver, where the films’ tensions often erupt into violence, could possibly do Wharton’s Gilded Age literary masterpiece justice. This skepticism was unnecessary, as everyone should know that Scorsese is a passionate champion of all aspects of cinema and storytelling, from high brow to low brow and everything in between. He has talked about how The Age of Innocence is also about violence, only instead of fists and guns the outwardly proper characters in Wharton’s Gilded Age New York wield words as weapons of emotional violence. Sometimes it’s even what’s left unsaid that causes the most damage to Ellen and Newland. After all, what is more intensely violent than a love not allowed to fully bloom? Ultimately, it’s about the violence of an age where strictly constructed social mores suffocated those whose hearts were most capable of giving and receiving the grandest of love.
Every detail, every moment of the film serves the story, fully reflecting the desire and longing Newland and Ellen felt for each other at a time and a place when their love could never possibly be accepted by the rigidly mannered, disingenuously polite New York high society in which they lived. Scorsese’s brilliant use of vibrant color dissolves express mood and feeling throughout, his camera acting as Newland’s eyes so we see Ellen as he sees her: beautiful and perfect, but always just out of reach.
The two leads are magnificent in their respective roles. At times, Pfeiffer and Day-Lewis convey the enormity of their shared heartache with little more than sidelong glances. When they fully unleash their passion for one another in brief, charged moments of physical contact, it’s electrifying—“The idea that the mere touching of a woman’s hand would suffice.” These tender yet explosive scenes between Pfeiffer and Day-Lewis are more affective than a thousand cinematic sex scenes combined. Both actors deserved Academy Award nominations for their work together in The Age of Innocence, and nearly thirty years later it still baffles me they didn’t receive them.
The film did receive overwhelming critical acclaim though, earning five Academy Award nominations and one win. Today it’s seen as a near-unassailable and timeless masterpiece by many, including yours truly. The rare adaptation that masterfully translates its source material to screen, Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence endures because it’s one of the most poignant and devastating films ever made about true love torn asunder by external forces.