Edith Wharton's forte was her piercing ability to accurately portray life among the rich and the socially powerful in nineteenth century America. This talent reached the peak of perfection in her novel The Age of Innocence, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1920. Martin Scorsese brought this classic to the screen in 1993.
In 1870 Newland Archer is a lawyer from a prominent New York family. He's engaged to May Welland. Everyone agrees that they make a perfect match. Then the Countess Ellen Olenska, May's older cousin, arrives in town after years of living abroad. Word spreads through the affluent Fifth Avenue community that she has separated from her adulterous husband. There are also rumors that she has had an affair.
Archer, an intense and liberal thinking man, is somewhat shocked by the vehement reaction of the ruling class against this outsider. He tries to ease her transition back into the city social scene by convincing one of New York's most prestigious families to throw a party for her.
Invited to Ellen's home, Archer is intrigued by her independent spirit and unconventional views. At one point in their conversation, she says, "All this blind obeying of tradition is thoroughly needless." Already under the spell of her beauty, Archer imagines himself to be Ellen's kindred spirit. Secretly he wishes to escape from his golden prison where every step is monitored by rituals and rules.
When Ellen indicates a desire to divorce her European husband, the head of Archer's law firm asks him to convince her this is not the thing to do. But Archer is already very conflicted about his feelings on Ellen's freedom. The more he sees her, the deeper in love he falls. May, in comparison, seems immature and bland. Archer yearns to run away with Ellen but lacks the will to do so. She, in turn, realizes his position and the hopelessness of their situation. Meanwhile, May and her high society peers have closed ranks to make sure these two conspirators against the social order are separated.
Martin Scorsese reveals his versatility as director and co-author with Jay Cocks of the screenplay for The Age of Innocence. No expense seems to have been spared in the sumptuous costumes and sets. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus conveys the visual splendor of the era, and Joanne Woodward, as the film's narrator, gives us a keen sense of Edith Wharton's skewing of the manners and morals of this aristocratic tribe. The three lead performances by Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder are audience pleasers.
The Age of Innocence examines the bigotry of the established social order and its deadly constricting power when confronting a challenge, however bright and spirited. The drama also shows the sharp edge of pain and loss when passion is not acted upon. It is, as the last scene of the film reveals, a soul-shattering experience.