#49 — The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993)
The most famous and justly revered films of Martin Scorsese’s career are notable for their muscular rawness, their willingness to dive headlong into the toughest territory, those streets that will never greet the rain real enough to wash the scum away. They spark with a fierce unpredictability, a sense of imminent danger so palpable that you half expect the camera crew filming certain scenes to quietly unmoor their equipment and tiptoe cautiously toward the safety of the exit. It’s admittedly the most distinctive and characteristic part of his work, but that explosiveness sometimes obscures the fact that he’s also a filmmaker of consummate precision, a creator with a keen eye and a probing intellect. His films can often feel rough and semi-improvised, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of complete control on his part.

I think Scorsese has greater range than he’s often given credit for, but I must concede that his film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel The Age of Innocence was unlike anything he’d done up to that point. Even since, only 1997’s Kundun employs a similar sort of delicacy and restraint. The story dips into the upper crust circles of 1870s New York, following a character with the perfectly-conceived name Newland Archer as he finds himself romantically torn between his lovely young fiancee and her striking, lovelorn cousin who enters into their lives with an enticing elegance. The film is about the emotions that rage under placid surfaces, burnished to respectable facades in the name of adhering to societal mores. Do you follow your heart or follow the rules? Live up to expectations, or discard it all in favor of a grasp at elusive happiness? Scorsese co-wrote the adaptation with former film critic (and future Gangs of New York collaborator) Jack Cocks, emphasizing the fragility of human emotion, the way passions burn to the surface. Collaborating with extraordinary actors working at the peak of their craft–notably Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder–Scorsese excavates the agony on the situation, honing in on the ways that buried feelings eventually, inevitably exert their control, and he shows the subtle ways in which skillful manipulators can use that very human weakness to their advantage.

As a director, Scorsese approaches it with the level of refinement that is typical of this sort of period piece. The film luxuriates in the trappings of the era, lingering over the place settings and the gilded rooms. The measured, almost melodic narration delivered by Joanne Woodward emphasizes these fussily opulent elements. In the process, it also winds up gently mocking the adoration of them, both in the culture that smothers Newland Archer and his peers, and, it can be construed, the parade of films that come out of Hollywood emphasizing art direction and costume design at the expense of meaningful character development and deeply felt emotion. That particular flaw is not the sort of mistake Martin Scorsese is likely to make. He approaches The Age of Innocence not as some fragile, important thing to be held up for bloodless respect, but as an opportunity to really dig into to personal interactions, human fears and frailties. It may look different on the outside, but at the core, it’s pure Scorsese.

(Posted simultaneously “Jelly-Town!”)

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