From the list of Shame Files: The Age of Innocence (1993)

The Criterion Collection has just issued a shimmering restoration of Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence (1993), marking his Directorial induction into the collection (apart from his contributions through the invaluable World Cinema Project). Thus I have finally addressed a glaring gap in my viewing repertoire. My procrastination has proven both a crime and a massively satisfying act of withholding. Much like the calculated dance of restrained interaction between stifled protagonists played exquisitely by Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer, I came so bloody close to scratching the itch of watching this sensuous cinematic experiment time and time again, but unlike those self-same protagonists the optimal circumstance has arisen for me, and it’s in glorious 4K, spacious 2.40:1 aspect and supported by a bounty of enriching supplements.

From the closeup images of blooming flowers overlaid with translucent lace, script and filigree in the highly textural, if not salacious, title sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass, a sensuous language is founded. In a succession of time-lapsed unfurlings, one gets mere impressions, seeming revelations, truths obscured by a scrim, obfuscated by structural ritualism. Each bloom dovetails the next in an elegant continuity which suggests one will never arrive at the center, just as an endless cascade of custom and costume in this bygone era and echelon will make certain that inner truths never see the light. Save for a much later scene involving the delicate removal of a glove (to which the title sequence visually rhymes), these flowers opening their petals represent the sexuality which is refreshingly absent from the film, lastly hinting that the “innocence” of the title will have myriad definitions.

Adapted from Edith Wharton’s nearly ethnographic 1920 novel of 1870’s Gilded Age Manhattan, “The Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), whose engagement to an innocent socialite May Welland (Winona Ryder) binds him to the codes and rituals of his upbringing. But when her cousin Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives in town on a wave of scandal after separating from her husband, she ignites passions in Newland he never knew existed.” (criterion A kinetic language of edits (hats off to Editor and carrer-long Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker), objects, overlapping matrices of coded and quiet social queues and abundant period details, are the mesh through which an otherwise ostensibly banal love triangle is exquisitely if not experimentally extruded.

Scorsese’s vibrant and expressive dialect of intuitive edits, dissolves, shifts in rhythm, swift camera movements, blushes of full color, fleeting fragments of actions and objects, creates energy and psychology and communicates (along with appropriate swaths of narration from the source book read by Joanne Woodward) the tribalistic opulence of 1870’s NY society (the offset-print of British aristocracy that it was), and looks unblinkingly at the machinery that perpetuates a highly codified society wherein everything from disapproval to acceptance are incrementally expressed through schemes and orchestrated in stages… and this is how we must experience the story, hemmed in with the rest of them by codes of conduct.

Pfeiffer is magnificent as outsider Mme. Olenska. She is a few shades less modulated than the rest, which is a breath of fresh air for Newland and for the viewer. The oft adventurous mannerisms of the camera and cutting bear a relationship to her “rogue” qualities. She and Newland share a fast and infectious rapport, reflected in their cutting banter, their gestures and especially in his youthful smile. Though The Age of Innocence is ultimately a tale of longing, Olenska’s intellect and her difficult insinuation into a new scrutinizing milieu are foregrounded. She reads and understands the intricate weave she is threading into, much more than Newland it turns out, and thus she is never treated as a simplistic object of desire. Her’s is an existential struggle, of which being desired is but one complication. (To quote my favorite protest sign of late, “She got 99 problems and Hetero-normative Patriarchy is all of them”) To whit, Newland Archer possesses the flavor of “new masculinity” that is emerging now which embodies thoughtfulness, empathy, and a willingness to question and hopefully challenge hypocritical judgements and systems of socio-sexual oppression leveraged against women. Though he ultimately falls short of breaking the mold, Newland posits ideas aloud, questions the rules, and wears his frustrations on his sleeve… and not merely under the guise of sexual desire (though it be a distinct component). In fact, these central characters feel at times near-anachronistic in their modern thinking and feeling.

Even young May Welland’s”Innocence” is partly a facade, portrayed deftly by a never-more-self-possessed Rider. Through well timed, well composed and well executed demonstrations of directness or maneuvering she reveals a depth of character. When she confronts Newland in a controlled and direct line of questioning about the possibility of “another woman”, offering him an “out” as it were, and adroitly decodes his sudden hastening of their engagement, May hints at an interior universe, while affirming that she will never break from the customs and expectations of their cohort.

This timely re-release folds beautifully into the attribute of systemic questioning and the active deconstruction of entrenched social norms that is propelling our current moment.  The Age of Innocence is perhaps progressive as a film but certainly as a novel of the 19020’s in how it refuses to judge Olenska, never shames her for her suspected “indiscretions” but rather reveals the unfathomable mechanisms of quiet, tacit judgement conducted through gestures or the absence of gestures of Gilded Age Manhattanites.

Having now seen The Age of Innocence, (easily now my favorite of Scorsese’s pictures) I cannot wait to watch it again and again, delving deeper into its bevy of visual and existential ideas, its spirited mannerisms of camera and cutting, as well as the rule-bound esoterics of another time and place.


  • New, restored 4k digital transfer, approved by director Martin Scorsese, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • New interviews with Scorsese, coscreenwriter Jay Cocks, production designer Dante Ferretti, and costume designer Gabriella Pescucci
  • Innocence and Experience, a 1993 documentary on the making of the film
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Geoffrey O’BrienNew cover by Sarah Habibi and F. Ron Miller

Author: Aaron Mannino

Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his website for writings and art-ings.

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