Martin Scorsese’s 1993 high-society period drama may seem an outlier within its director’s oeuvre, but its subtlety and vivid use of symbolism make it one of his greatest films. This short reflection was my contribution to the Scorsese-themed episode of film podcast Hell Is for Hyphenates.
Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film The Age of Innocence begins with a montage of flowers unfurling in stop-motion to a lush orchestral theme, superimposed on textures of lace and roundhand calligraphy. The sequence, designed by film-title legends Elaine and Saul Bass, introduces the film’s themes of layering and symbolism.
As Joanne Woodward’s wry narration explains, “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.” In particular, the 19th century was obsessed with the secret language of flowers; and this is a film in which fragile hopes blossom and wilt, small gestures carry savage meanings, and letters have life-changing consequences.
By contrast, the teaser trailer for Scorsese’s forthcoming film The Irishman, a crime drama about the notorious disappearance of union leader Jimmy Hoffa, succinctly sketches the macho terrain where many people feel Scorsese has done his finest work. Against a black screen, a single bullet casing drifts through several actors’ names. Robert De Niro. Al Pacino. Joe Pesci. Harvey Keitel.
The Age of Innocence isn’t convenient to the truism of Scorsese as a chronicler of masculinity, because it speaks to feminised themes: romantic love and social repression. But it showcases the elegance and subtlety that Scorsese can muster. Adapted from a period novel by Edith Wharton, it’s set in 1870s upper-class New York — a rarefied milieu that, like a hothouse flower, has bloomed and vanished.
Scorsese’s gaze is mobile and painterly, filling the frame with textures of clothing and opulent interiors. The graceful society scenes seem to have leapt straight from the artworks on the walls of the grand houses as the camera brushes around salons and dining tables, skimming the heads of ballroom waltzers and bowler-hatted businessmen. Shots dissolve seamlessly into blots of colour.
And while it’s easy for period films to feel slow and stultifying, as if mummified in the past, The Age of Innocence is vivid, even feverish, in its sensuous focus on detail. Scorsese alights eagerly on the hothouse flowers in buttonholes, vases and corsages, on jewels glinting in darkened theatres, on lavishly laden dinner tables, on the paths of the characters’ avid gazes. The bright outlines of letters and keys burn into view as their significance sears itself into the story.
So much about this film echoes the workings of memory: the way our thoughts wander, and dwell on what become by repetition the key moments of our lives. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll certainly recall the dreamy, golden scene in which Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) watches Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) gazing across the spangled water, and arbitrarily decides he will only approach her if she turns to face him before a random sailboat passes the nearby lighthouse.
I also love the scene in which Newland, riding in a carriage with Ellen, presses his lips to the tender underside of her wrist, exposed by her unbuttoned glove. It’s moment even more perversely erotic for its symbolic orifice.
But what’s stuck with me most is Scorsese’s firelit staging of the true guile of Newland’s wife May (Winona Ryder). We see her at first as her distracted fiancé does: like a graceful innocent. She’s often shown smiling softly, or turning to look over her shoulder, like a swan, or a startled doe.
But as May tells her husband that Ellen will be returning permanently to Europe, Scorsese’s camera lands on hot coals slipping from the fire, and then on the long train of May’s wedding gown, slithering out of Newland’s study. And when she lays her head, and her plot, in Newland’s lap, it’s not in modest surrender, but in a crushing act of domination. An assassination of the soul to rival the most gruesome gangland hit.