Whenever asked about my favorite Martin Scorsese film, I typically went with the usual, more generally acceptable suspects across Scorsese film geeks. Movies like Goodfellas or Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. Those are the generally agreed-upon classics. And they’re great, don’t get me wrong. But they weren’t films that lived in my heart. Those are all films I admire and, to varying degrees, even love. But they’re not films I go back to frequently. I don’t FEEL them in my soul. That’s a nasty term to those of you who remember The King’s Speech’s Oscar campaign, but, that aside, Scorsese’s 1993 masterpiece The Age of Innocence is arguably the first film in my adult life to which I had a physical reaction. It’s not a widely popular film, granted, but it’s most likely not only my personal favorite Scorsese film but it may also be my personal favorite film ever made.
Scorsese took a huge risk in following up his Oscar-winning Goodfellas and Oscar-nominated Cape Fear with the on-the-surface gentility of The Age of Innocence. Those earlier films heavily trafficked in high tension and graphic violence, so it was a major departure for Scorsese to take on a costume drama more suited to the likes of Merchant Ivory. But if audiences were to look closer at the material, the themes and patterns so prevalent in other Scorsese films are boldly on display here in what I would argue as a more mature and accomplished manner.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edith Wharton, the film stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, a young lawyer in late 19th century New York. His well-established world of opera, manners, customs, and pending engagement to the proper May Welland (Winona Ryder, sadly the only Oscar nominee in the whole bunch) is shattered by the vibrance and social customs-eschewing Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ellen fled her potentially abusive European husband for the supposed safety and comfort of her New York-based family, but she catches the eye of Newland who, over the course of the film, is prepared to abandon everything to fulfill his love for her.
The plot is nearly the least important aspect of the film as Scorsese juices the material with his electric style, at one point employing a long take that, for my money, completely trumps the famed Copacabana long take in Goodfellas. He also frames all of his characters in legendarily opulent art direction and covers them in equally splendid costume design. These tools aren’t simply to satisfy the surface-level demands of the costume drama audience. They define an entire culture, the social customs and morays of the era. They dazzle the audience as much as they entrap the characters in this socially violent world of 19th century New York – a world where friend conspire against you as coldly as any gangster would stab you in the back. The conspirators in The Age of Innocence simply do it with a kind smile and carefully placed bit of gossip. It’s far more cutting than any knife to the throat I’ve seen.
Aside from the brilliant visual splendor of the film, Scorsese calls on Elmer Bernstein to create a classically romantic score that ironically underscores the on-screen tension. By the end of the film, when an older Newland decides to avoid reconnecting with Ellen Olenska out of respect for his dead wife, the score swells, stinging the heart as dramatically as any other piece of music I’ve ever heard.
And the performances… Back in 1993, Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer were on everyone’s lips for Best Actor and Actress Oscar consideration and rightly so. The brutally violent Day-Lewis we’ve come to know from recent performances is completely absent here. Instead, he portrays a meek and nearly helpless man who cannot free himself from the shackles of New York social customs. It’s a uncharacteristic performance for Day-Lewis, but it’s among his five best. Pfeiffer is a revelation here. Coming off her kick-ass Catwoman in Batman Returns, she creates Ellen as a delicate flower living amongst the thumbs and harsh breath of her New York family, those who profess to care for her but would rather see her dead. She holds herself in such a manner through the entire film as if she would shatter like a porcelain doll at any moment. I can’t begin to understand the Academy’s limited reaction to the film – even ignoring Scorsese himself for his light-year advances in his personal directorial approach – but film history does not care about Oscars. Neither do I, really.
Instead, Scorsese left me with a film that touched my heart and ravaged my soul completely. The perfect combination of cinematic tools working in close coordination with theme and tone to craft a flawless diamond of a film, The Age of Innocence isn’t really for everyone, I’ll admit. But, for me, it is beyond a masterpiece. It is a film that I revisit in parts at least once or twice a month. It’s a film at which I will always marvel and wonder how Scorsese could have possibly crafted such a perfect film. It’s a film that I will always treasure on my own. It doesn’t matter to me if no one else on Earth shares this same opinion, it is mine and mine alone.
Even now, as I type this praise of the film, I’m reminded of the gorgeous scene where Ellen stands on a pier with a lighthouse in the distance, the sun reflecting brilliantly off the water. And it makes me smile.