The Age of Innocence (1993)
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The Age of Innocence may come as a surprise to those who associate Martin Scorsese with movies about gangsters. Based on Edith Wharton’s novel, it’s a sumptuous period romance set in late-19th-century Manhattan high society. Intriguingly, Scorsese described it as his “most violent film”, though not so much as a punch is thrown: the violence portrayed is interior and social, not physical, in this depiction of a romance thwarted by the constricting social norms of the upper class.
Scorsese faced the challenge of depicting a society in which, as the narrator puts it, “the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs” —and so the director cannot rely on characters stating things outright. His great accomplishment is that the film nonetheless reaches an operatic pitch of emotion, keeping the viewer on seat-edge. This is done not only through outstanding performances (Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder), but also by camera movements conveying repressed passion, by light and color, and by the gorgeous Elmer Bernstein score.
For all that, if the film merely depicted the cruelty of social norms and mores stifling forbidden love, it would be of limited interest. Yet as the story develops, it doesn’t allow itself to be reduced to a critique of the past. Indeed, though not without ambiguity, it shows the value of strong social rules and institutions —because often, if we follow our passion, we destroy ourselves and others.
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