It is not often that a classic novel successfully translates into an Academy Award winning film, but every now and again, someone hits the nail right on the head. Even more impressive is when the director is Martin Scorsese; a prominent master of all films violent and masculine. What is not so shocking is that Scorsese, a true ace in the hole of machismo filmmaking, also prominently works with characters whose stories rely on identity. Identity and status propels the characters in The Age of Innocence, both within the pages of the novel (1920), and alive on the silver screen (1993). A story of passion, personal transformation, and identity, Edith Wharton and Martin Scorsese both bring the drama of 1870s affluent New York to life effortlessly. While the film makes a docile account of the book (sparing much of the climax that Scorsese’s films possess), it breathes life and interest into a written genre that many find to be too didactic.
The Age of Innocence is a classic summer reading piece for high schoolers and college students alike. Although the loftiness of the language is enough to dissuade many from reading this book for pleasure, those who enjoy historical or period literature will certainly enjoy the novel. Edith Wharton writes the New York social ladder from the inside out; having lived a similar life, the book makes for an intriguing look into the cagey, elitist, lives of the main characters. In this story, the antagonist is not so much a person as it is a way of living. The Scorsese film makes for a very faithful adaptation of the book, differing only in the abridge length to accommodate movie-going audiences. The film is a vibrant visual explanation for the book, although it does lack an exciting or climactic experience.
It is a commonly accepted idea that period films are either hit or miss: if the director and screen-writer do not truly commit to making the story feel authentic, it does not look authentic. As out of character as it is for Scorsese to direct a romantic, historical drama, his vision of Edith Wharton’s words makes 1870’s New York seem vibrant and enchanting. The central characters, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), May Welland (Winona Ryder), and Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) are all props against a high society of socialites, status, blue blood, and breeding as they try and mask who they really are, while soul searching for what they really want. Although the title implies that the characters to some degree are innocent, it is a recurrent theme that innocence is perceived as naiveté and an unwillingness or inability to sense the deeper meaning of things. Newland is a well-to-do lawyer who is torn between his betrothed, May Welland, who embodies the perfect ideal woman who is wealthy, of proper status, and is seen but never heard, and her cousin the Countess Olenska, who is European in manner, mysterious, and free thinking, the opposite of both May and Newland. Newland falls in love with a newly separated Ellen amidst the backdrop of a quietly scandalous New York City society; she is independent, free spirited, and slightly out of step with the rigidity of the social ladder that is New York. It is Newland who must chose to conform to society by staying with May, or following his heart, with Ellen.
The novel is written from a deep tell-all perspective of Edith Wharton, who often wrote about the inner workings of the factual New York high society, eventually making her the first woman to earn a Pulitzer Prize. The story itself is ambiguous in its end; it is up to the reader to interpret the main protagonist’s decisions and what they represent in tune with the theme of the story. The film remains diligently faithful to Wharton’s original story, and while it is not a riveting blockbuster, it is vivacious and visually stimulating. The actors all look as if they belong in a time warp, and sound convincing in their roles as triangulated lovers of another time. Scorsese dedicated a large part of the magic to the look and feel of the setting and characters, just as Wharton dedicated her words to the blunt truth behind the behaviors and social boundaries of her time. The film earned Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score, proving that the presentation is just as important as the story. Edith Wharton engages the reader with her tales of the hierarchy within a social caste, and Martin Scorsese interprets those tales brilliantly in a truly artistic translation on screen.