A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence is a 1993 rendition of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1920 novel set in Gilded Age, upper-crust 1870s New York. The wealthiest and most powerful families in New York City mingle in their own social set, marrying each other and doing business together. The son of one of the best of these families is betrothed to the daughter of another such family, with both eager to continue to obey the strict social rules of their class. But when a non-conformist cousin, who had left the fold to marry a European count, returns to New York after a scandal, the man falls passionately for her, causing society to close ranks and maintain the status quo. Affairs are mentioned. Fully-clothed kissing is seen. Adults drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes socially.
What's the story?
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE might better be titled "The Age of Conformity" as its theme is the hypocrisy of the conventions of high society. The inhabitants maintain an illusion of superiority over everyone else at the same time they're imprisoned by restrictive rules. These observations of New York's upper crust of the 1870s were first made by Edith Wharton in her novel of the same title. Director Martin Scorsese uses an omniscient narrator's voice to maintain the novel's literary tone. We meet Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), the well-bred, prosperous attorney who is betrothed to May Welland (Winona Ryder), the sheltered and genteel young woman he loves. Their union will bring together two of New York's best families. Tradition calls for a long engagement. Newland, who loves the rules and regularity of his world, also fancies himself a secret non-conformist. He'd prefer a shorter engagement but keeps his views to himself, harmlessly playing along without protest, admiring May's unquestioning devotion to the restrictions. That is, until cousin Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer) returns from Europe, where she'd married a cheating and abusive Polish count. The scandals his actions caused are now attached to Ellen and most of "important" New York wants nothing to do with her. Her departure from the norms are seen as transgressive, and only the welcoming back by Newland's established family and May's even more impressive one help her find a minor if accepted place in New York. Newland's efforts to support her arouse his passion for her as she simultaneously flirts with him and rebuffs him, drawing him in but also insisting he go through with his marriage to her dear cousin May. Newland's obsession with Ellen nearly wrecks that marriage and his life, too. The story's end asks viewers to compare the value of stability and family against the merits of following one's passion.
Is it any good?
Some consider this to be one of Scorsese's masterpieces, but the snail's pacing and the dwelling on lush images that fetishize the trappings of wealth aren't for everyone. Wharton was praised for her observations of the habits and obsessions of her tribe, but using the camera to sweep across paneled drawing rooms, painting-covered walls, and carpeted hallways is surprisingly less exhilarating than well-written words on a page. The movie makes a meal of the anguish of people trapped by their own attachments to their privileged, manufactured world of laws and restrictions, but at two hours and a quarter plus, there's only so much moaning over being forced to vacation in luxurious homes owned by the wrong people that a viewer is willing to endure.
At the time The Age of Innocence was made, many thought Scorsese, the filmmaker often drawn to tales of violence and wise-guy crimes, was an odd choice to direct, but Scorsese treats the bizarre rules of honor in Wharton's elite society the way he treats the so-called honor and rules of the Goodfellas world. Transgressors are punished and treachery runs deep in both. But banishment from the ostentatious ballrooms seems petty compared to kneecapping and sadistic gangland murders. Day-Lewis inhabits a sphere of acting genius far beyond any of the movie's other cast members. You can feel his heart rate increase as he merely imagines making love to Ellen, and you can see his face register shock at the recognition that his seemingly guileless wife has outplayed him into remaining married to her. As depicted in Downton Abbey, Wharton notes the changes undergone by the wealthy and predicts an even more unrecognizable future ahead. The world of her childhood, where the rich could ignore the turmoil outside of their privileged realms, had already lost its innocence in the devastation of World War I. There's no talk of war here, but at movie's end, Newland walks the streets of Paris at age 57, with both the war that would end all wars and his own best years behind.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how elites maintain their position in The Age of Innocence and in real life. In many social sectors, who your parents are matters more than what kind of person you are. How does this bias help segregate society and keep worthy people at the bottom from climbing to the top?
Newland considers himself a non-conformist. Do you think he was really ready to upend his life, be banished by his family, and lose the respect of his group for love?
The story glosses over Newland's life as a parent, the changes to his world brought on by World War I, and the quality of the long haul of his marriage. We see him when he's free to confront the love of his life. Why do you think he behaves as he does at the story's end?
How do you think the use of an all-knowing narrator enhances or detracts from the story?
Ellen, who would seem quite proper by today's standards, was a pariah and a renegade for her class and era. What bad act would one of your friends have to commit to be shunned? How have things changed since the 1870s, and how have they stayed the same?
- In theaters: October 1, 1993
- On DVD or streaming: December 7, 2010
- Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder
- Director: Martin Scorsese
- Studio: STUDIO IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 138 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: for thematic elements and some mild language
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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