Martin Scorsese’s lush and beautifully shot 1993 film The Age of Innocence examines the daily lives of rich socialites during the Gilded Age. An adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel of the same name, this film takes a departure from Scorsese’s usual themes of greed, violence, and family, and instead explores the dangers of the superficials of love. The Age of Innocence shows how easy it is to pursue the idea of someone as opposed to the person themselves.
The film focuses on the relationship between a lawyer, Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis), his naïve wife, May Welland, (Winona Ryder) and her cousin and his eventual mistress, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), in an 1870s affluent neighborhood in New York City. When Ellen arrives in town from Europe from her cheating husband, Newland is assigned to her divorce case, much to the intrigue of his nosy colleagues. As Newland becomes more disillusioned by the pettiness and frivolity of his environment, he becomes more drawn to Ellen’s authenticity and independence. However, her frequent absences make it difficult for Newland to remain in contact with her; as a result, he pines more for her than for his own wife. Once May becomes pregnant, several years pass without contact with Ellen. During these years, May and Newland raise a few children, and May contracts and eventually dies of pneumonia. At this point, Newland’s now-grown son visits him, and the two decide to visit Ellen. While Newland’s son decides to enter her apartment, Newland declines, and walks back home, with the memory of the two of them on the beach several years earlier comforting him.
An important element of the film is the societal backdrop. It is this backdrop that forms much of the tension Newland experiences, and what drives him away from it and towards Ellen. In this environment, Newland is never alone, neither metaphorically nor physically. Literally, there are always people around him, since New York City is a very large and populated city. Even inside the homes Newland visits and lives in, there are always people around. Metaphorically, all of the characters, save Newland and Ellen, pride themselves in gossiping and prying into the private lives of others. This constant presence makes it hard for Newland to pursue what he wants without the judgment of others.
This meddling is also exhibited through the film’s use of voice-over narration. The unnamed narrator informs the audience of the social lives of the other characters, like what would be done through gossip. Most of what we learn about these characters is from these rumors, and thus reflects how the characters themselves learn about each other.
Another element of this society is how these people communicate with each other. Many of the characters speak to each other in an evasive social code: their responses to social developments and rumors are not conveyed head-on and assertively. They are instead displayed through planning social gatherings and are delivered to the recipient from others, often requiring translation. This is done to preserve the false idea of tranquility and normalcy. Scandal is not acceptable in this society, but still intriguing for people to hear about. Since these people seem to have nothing better to do, anyone who acts slightly different to the established norm is considered an outcast and is always noticed.
It is this environment that entices Newland to Ellen. Ellen symbolizes the independence from society that Newland seeks. With her, Newland feels he can be honest about himself and his feelings in ways that he does not experience with his wife or any of the other people around him. However, his desire for her seems to stem more from a need for affection than out of genuine interest in her. Little of their fleeting time together is devoted to them actually talking about each others lives. In fact, most of what he knows about her is learned from overhearing others talking about her and from reading her legal file. Despite this lack of proper communication, Newland pines for the idea of her. He wishes for the semblance of a strong emotional relationship and social relatability, but does not work to achieve that. After their first conversation alone, Newland is convinced that he is in love with her, and wishes to start an affair with her. Such an arrangement would immediately backfire, especially considering her already tarnished reputation and his professional relationship with her.
This projection is exemplified at the end of the film, when Newland talks with his son about Ellen on their way to see her after years of absence. When his son asks him if Ellen “was lovely,” Newland replies: “I don’t know. She was different.” To Newland, it did not matter specifically who Ellen was--Newland was enticed by the idea of change from his environment, and projected that desire onto her. He does not seem to see much in her beyond that.
Newland’s desire for Ellen shows the deception involved in chasing after someone for superficial reasons. Pursuing someone because of who they represent instead of who they are is harmful and unfair to everyone involved. Newland’s desire for affection is justified. However, his pursuit of this by projecting his insecurities onto Ellen is not. The two of them were very lonely at the time, but pursuing an affair, especially in these circumstances, has many long-term consequences that neither Ellen nor Newland consider.