In high school, you could probably recall reading the famous Edith Wharton novel about the turbulent lives of New York High Society during the early 1870s. Wharton, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her novel, was the first woman to ever do so. Her tale of struggle and scandal between rich and powerful Manhattanites captured the hearts and attention of the American public. Today, it still holds a special place amongst scholars, historians and lovers of literature, allowing the story of the fragile Newland Archer and scandalous Countess Olenska to be discussed and debated over till this day. In 1993, we were gifted with a worthy film adaption. Directed by Academy Award winning director Martin Scorsese, and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, The Age of Innocence is possibly one of the greatest High Society stories ever put on the silver screen.
The film opens at one of the many exclusive events attended by New York’s cream of the crop. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a lawyer from one of the city’s most respected families, attends the opera. There, he hears gossip about fiancé’s cousin, the mysterious and scandalous Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who had just returned from Europe by way of sea. Rumor has it that Olenska was raised in unconventional European ways and lived a disreputable lifestyle amongst artists and actors when her marriage to the Count began to plunder. This is disagreeable to the prim and proper Manhattan elite, causing a stir in the world of innocence they longed to preserve. Being the quintessential gentleman, the kind hearted Archer and his devotion to his soon-to-be-wife May Welland (Winona Ryder) gave him the idea to announce his engagement that evening to devoid any unkind words towards his future in-law. With two respectable families behind Olenska, he was sure that her acceptance into society would be seamless. New York kindly declined his selfless attempt.
As gossip arose around the Welland household, Archer is then assigned by the family to persuade Olenska to return to the abusive and womanizing Count so that the family will not be left with the dishonor of her divorce. Archer could see that the Welland clan had no care for Olenska’s wellbeing, allowing her to be collateral damage in their game of respectability. They were more than willing to leave her depressed in a loveless marriage, than to stain their good family name.
Archer begins to feel for the Countess, who believes that Old New York’s traditions and expectations were ruining a perfectly innocent woman looking for happiness. It isn’t long when he begins to fall for her, sending her a bouquet of rare yellow roses as a sign of his affection. Olenska finds comfort in the young lawyer, slowly falling for him too. Though more fearless than most conforming Manhattan men, Newland is still a product of his time. He realizes his and his family’s reputation may be at stake if he begins an affair with the scandalous woman. He does all that he can to fight his temptations for the sultry woman that he loves, who is the exact opposite of the perfect virgin-like May Welland. In addition, leaving May would mean facing the wrath of all of New York’s millionaires club through social destruction.
Director Martin Scorsese and writing partner Jay Cocks springs to life this forgotten time of elegance in their 1993 Oscar winning classic. The film is the ideal adaption of the popular Wharton novel, even commissioning the voice work of actress Joanne Woodward to narrate certain passages of the book to describe the world they are living in. We dive into the small universe of wealthy New Yorkers, looking at what they eat, the cigars they smoke, how they vacation, and most importantly—how one was expected to behave. Archer was a man of passions and curiosity, but his old world upbringing and society’s expectations of him as a respectable gentleman becomes the film’s main struggle—something as resonant today as it ever has been.
Scorsese often refers to The Age of Innocence as his most violent film. The auteur is known for movies involving gruesome murders, villainous gangsters, intense drug dealers, and depressed psychopaths, although he claims that nothing will compare to the power and influence of the elite kind. Newland and Olenska’s decisions lead to social disgrace and reproach by the seemingly innocent people that surrounds them. The film is an entertaining piece that looks beyond beautiful costumes and production design, but into the mindset of the rich and powerful of Manhattan. It a commentary of a time when one must follow society’s rules or not be society at all. What is better: to be part of the elite unhappy or to rebel and be worthless to the most powerful people of land? The Age of Innocence challenges these ideas, and is one of the most compelling stories ever told.
By Chino R. Hernandez