2015 Update: Here are some remarks about The Age of Innocence that were posted when I was a reviewer on a church website in the late ’90s. That makes it one of the first reviews I published after college. The site was called Green Lake Reflections. I’ve learned a thing or two about review writing since then, but that my opinion of this film is still similar. It remains one of my favorite Martin Scorsese films.

What comes to mind when you hear the name Martin Scorsese? Movies about gangsters and thugs, most likely. Stories about the Mob. Stories about dangerous men learning to get what they want from life through the use of force. GoodFellas. Taxi Driver. Raging Bull.

So what is Scorsese doing as director of an Edith Wharton adaptation? What’s with the frilly dresses and the romance?

Actually, Scorsese’s on more familiar territory with The Age of Innocence than it might seem. The 1870s in America were governed by a restrictive system of manners and order that valued modesty and formality over the messiness of being truthful and compassionate. Men engaged in careful duels while they put their feet up and smoked their cigars, concealing weapons of wordplay in their eloquence. Watch how Scorsese choreographs the hushed, harsh conversations in this film, how the clicking of a lighter at the end of a double-edged declaration is like the pop of a gun after a macho turn of phrase in a gangster flick.

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) really isn’t that different from the walking time bomb that Robert DeNiro played in Taxi Driver. Oh, sure, Newland has money and position, but the social rules of the day keep him from what it is he truly desires, a gorgeous but politically-incorrect widow named Madame Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). He wants to break the rules, to upset this fragile house of cards that keeps Ellen isolated, friendless, and lonely. But he cannot without spoiling his reputation and risking his secure position in the community. Newland must choose between acting on his plan to marry the prim, proper, and girlish May, or to act on desire and admiration for this exotic and sophisticated rebel who so clearly desires him. The community conspires to force him into the marriage, seeing full well that his heart is straying to the newcomer. Finding himself between a life of respect and honor and a life of shame, this gentleman must choose.

Daniel Day-Lewis — who made a comic art of restraint in A Room With a View — is similarly restrained here, but makes Newland an admirable, sympathetic, and tragic figure. And Michelle Pfeiffer is glorious and energetic as Ellen. Winona Ryder gives one of her best performances as the ultimate well-mannered lady, May Welland, who uses her social influence both to conspire and manipulate as well as to lend a note of much needed grace in the midst of chaos.

The Age of Innocence reminds us that Hollywood’s tendency to champion the desires of the self runs against the grain of much classic literature. I think it demonstrates powerfully that no relationship is as simple as it appears, and sometimes a smile can conceal devilish motives. It also shows that while tradition can devolve into a conformity that stifles compassion and love, acting in mere self-interest can ultimately be just as destructive.

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