With The Age of Innocence, in 1993 Martin Scorsese brought Edith Wharton’s novel to the cinema: a story of forbidden love starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer.
“You gave me the first glimpses of a real life and then you told me to continue living a false one. No one can resist that much.” “I’m resisting.”
Exactly a century separates the New York represented by Martin Scorsese in Those good guys from the one that serves as a frame to The age of innocence: two worlds that, at least apparently, could not be further apart. In his 1990 masterpiece, Scorsese narrated the rise of mafia gregarious Henry Hill within New York organized crime and the Gambino clan during the 1970s. In 1993, however, the director transported us to the luxurious living rooms and other meeting places of the New York bourgeoisie of the 1870s in his transposition of The age of innocencea literary classic published by Edith Wharton in 1920: the very rare case, in Scorsese’s filmography, of an incursion into the territories of costume melodrama, as well as one of the most fascinating projects of his career.
If the criminal underworld of Those good guys it was an “asphalt jungle” governed by the laws of brutality and oppression, as established by a rigid mafia hierarchy, it is an underground violence that flows beneath the veneer of kindness and elegance exhibited in The age of innocence by the exponents of New York high society: a sumptuous microcosm to which we are introduced through an opera house, during a production of the Faust by Charles Gounod, and through the perspective of the young lawyer Newland Archer, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Written by Martin Scorsese together with Jay Cocks (who will return to collaborate with him for Gangs of New York e Silence), The age of innocence It debuted in American theaters on September 17, 1993, a few days after being screened out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, and over time it became one of the most acclaimed films by the Italian-American director.
An impossible love in the gilded cage of New York
To the brilliant frenzy of Those Good Boys, but also of the following one Casinois reflected here in a high composure way of life of a social class strictly bound to a precise series of rituals: the existence of Archer and his peers unfolds with inflexible cyclicality between balls, receptions, courtesy visits and social evenings, in a whirlwind of always identical faces and under the eyes penetrating – and infallible intuition – of Mrs. Mingott, the rich matriarch played with vivacity by Miriam Margolyes. It is in this context that a ‘foreign’ element suddenly materializes, and is therefore destined to be kept on the margins: Mrs. Mingott’s niece, Ellen Olenska, just returned from Europe and burdened with an ambiguous reputation due to the her marriage to a dissolute Polish nobleman. A figure to which a splendid one Michelle Pfeiffer it gives a radiant grace, to which Archer will not be able to remain indifferent.
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On the interactions between Archer and Countess Olenska, commented by a narrative voice (originally that of Joanne Woodward) which recalls the literary matrix of the story, Martin Scorsese therefore inserts the dramaturgical structure of the film: not only the story of a canonical ‘forbidden love ‘, but the immersion in the emotional universe of two people caged in a reality with ruthless contours. It is reality staged in the opulence of Dante Ferretti’s scenography, dominated bythe horror of the void of the decorations and furnishings, and in the magnificent costumes by Gabriella Pescucci, rewarded with the Oscar; the reality depicted by the photography of Michael Ballhaus, another very faithful companion of Scorsese (but before that the historic director of photography for Rainer Werner Fassbinder), in which sudden flashes of light come on to pierce the dim light of the interiors or to envelop Countess Olenska in the glare golden with a sunset over the sea.
The longing for freedom and the end of innocence
The entire visual apparatus is indispensable to illustrate the contest in which the clandestine feeling between the two protagonists – Archer is engaged to the heiress May Welland (Winona Ryder), while Countess Olenska has not yet decided whether to ask for a divorce – is clashes with the social conventions and puritanical morality of the environment to which they belong. “Isn’t there anyone here who wants to know the truth, Mr. Archer?“, asks Olenska, impatient with the codes of behavior imposed on her; “True loneliness is living among these kind people who only ask you to pretend“. The yearning for freedom, and the possibility of truly being oneself, in antithesis to an inviolable system of power or an already established destiny: it is one of the key themes of Martin Scorsese’s works, traceable even in his “apocryphal gospel “The last temptation of Christ is here expressed in a melody that lights up suddenly, in the cracks of a story imbued with a sense of oppression and imprisonment.
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From the initial, silent heartbeats between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, expressed, even before words, through the luminous looks of Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, to arrive at an epilogue of poignant melancholy, emblematically placed twenty-five years later (i.e. at the transition between the two centuries), The age of innocence It can rightfully be counted among the great love films of contemporary cinema. But at the same time it is a great film about the conflict between the individual and society and the dichotomy between desire and sacrifice, between the desire for self-determination and the concept of guilt induced by common morality. In this perspective lies the ‘scandalous’ modernity of Countess Olenska: a promise of happiness to which the protagonist will try to reach out, but without the courage to cling to it all the way and not let go.