Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder
We commit to a lot in life, from the honor code whenever taking a test in college to marriage vows if we choose that path. Initially making a commitment may be easy but the real challenge lies in keeping it when tempted to break it. The Age of Innocence exemplifies this struggle, beautifully set in 1870s New York and featuring some of the greatest actors working in Hollywood.
This story follows Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), as a respected member of high society and set to be engaged to a young and innocent woman named May (Winona Ryder), who is part of a very prominent family. Their union represents the perfect marriage to continue to live a life in prominence that he has grown accustomed to in profession, as a lawyer, and in name. That commitment abruptly gets murky with the arrival of May’s cousin Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wants to escape her terrible Polish husband and seeks refuge with her family in New York. While first being rejected by high society, Ellen receives support from her family and Archer. The more time that Archer spends with her, the more he sees what Ellen offers that May does not. This battle of duty versus desire makes Archer make some difficult decisions.
High society in this film exhibits extravagant balls and lavish luncheons where practically no one eats. They serve the purpose of gathering everyone for a good bit of gossip and most of it gets directed towards Ellen upon her arrival. She wants to escape a terrible marriage and instead of garnering any sympathy from anyone, she must contend with vicious rumors. This happens because divorce was not seen as proper in this era, especially for anyone in high society. Do not forget, Ellen seeks to escape, which is unfathomable. What does she have to complain about? She’s married to a well-connected man and lives a life of luxury, what else could a person want? This attitude personifies the type of world these characters must navigate, so caution remains crucial.
This leads to the protagonist of the film, Archer and the decision he has to make in order to survive in this world. He made the commitment of engagement with May but after spending time with Ellen, he can see that May has no opinions and just goes with what her family members tell her. Ellen, on the other hand aligns closer to Archer’s age and criticizes the high society they must participate in to succeed. Everything Archer believed he wanted becomes challenged because Ellen’s presence presents a different view of the world he has strived for his entire life. It can only help that this character is brought to the screen by the incredible Daniel Day-Lewis, who exudes so much warmth to this role. While Archer lives such a privileged life and his issues may seem very first-world, Day-Lewis really connects with the audience to show the internal struggle he battles and the ramifications it may have. He must deliberate between the path of choosing the honor of his word or following his passion. Each decision has its pros and cons and Archer has a limited time to make the decision.
With this film, Martin Scorsese once again shows his versatility as a filmmaker. While this film takes place in New York, it exhibits a different type of New York not ever shown in a Scorsese film. A film all about longing and lingering touches, the love triangle drives the film to its success and part of it lies in the title. Innocence can be described in many ways and each of the characters displays this in different ways. May, for example, does so by accepting everything laid before her in life. She does not question traditions or decorum. She has a duty she must achieve from her first breath for the good of her family, which she gladly accepts. This battle for keeping one’s reputation and longing for love comes together for a conclusion that was surprising but ultimately inevitable.
When looking at the filmography of Martin Scorsese, The Age of Innocence rarely enters the discussion of his greater works outside of cinephiles. Scorsese will always be known for his gangster pictures like Goodfellas, The Departed, and Casino, but he displays the soft touch necessary to tell this period film. A beautifully, well-told story containing excellent costume design, direction, and acting.