Thirty years ago, Martin Scorsese upended viewers’ expectations with the premiere of a new addition to his canon: The Age of Innocence, adapted from Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. By this point, Scorsese had become known for directing films like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver, studies of masculinity highlighted by expressions of rage and isolation. Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver enacted a grim fantasy of male violence by stomping into a brothel and shooting dead a group of men inside; Jake LaMotta, the boxer in Raging Bull, boorishly pummeled his wife after discovering her infidelity. And Goodfellas is entirely structured around generations of a Brooklyn Mafia syndicate, the passing of the gangster torch.
The period romance of The Age of Innocence, meanwhile, does away with guns and punches entirely. It’s the subtlest of Wharton’s masterpieces, a catalog which also includes the harsh yet hilarious consumerism satire The Custom of the Country and the tragic The House of Mirth, which ends in a socialite’s suicide. Scorsese, along with co-writer Jay Cocks, faithfully adapted Wharton’s novel, which follows the milquetoast banker Newland Archer and his doomed affair with his fiancée’s cousin. Wharton recreated in Innocence the vanished world of her 1870s Old New York childhood, a mannered, insular, ultimately superficial society where “what was or was not ‘the thing,’” Wharton wrote, was what governed its members’ destinies.
Scorsese treated this subject matter with the weight, nuance, and emotional intensity of his most noted movies. He rejected the notion that New York’s superficial decorum in Innocence was less dramatically rich than, say, the more poverty-stricken New York that his other protagonists had inhabited. In fact, at the time of its release, he called Innocence his most violent work yet—asserting that Archer, unlike his other cinematic antiheroes, did not have an outlet for his rage.
Indeed, Archer (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) was not a typical Scorsese protagonist by any means. He grew up in a protective bubble of wealth and privilege. At the story’s outset, he’s engaged to a daughter of the New York aristocracy, May Welland (Winona Ryder), in a perfect match of convenience—not passion. She symbolizes for him the innocence, procreativity, and gentility that society expects him to carry throughout his life. But he bristles against these pressures too, particularly regarding the predicament of May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Olenska’s separation from her high-status husband has caused a scandal among the male gentility of which Archer is a member. “I’m sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots,” he says at the dinner table to his mother and sister.
No other protagonist of Scorsese’s was as interested in believing himself to be moral as Wharton’s Newland Archer. Fittingly, the character offered Scorsese the opportunity to explore the theme of male alienation in someone compelled to suppress, rather than express, how he feels—finding the violence in moments of silence rather than in action.
Scorsese interprets Wharton’s novel through his own unique and equally engaging cinematic language. The film’s opening at the New York Opera, where Archer watches a performance of Faust, was shot at the Philadelphia Academy of Music; with its ornate 1850s decor surrounding the action, Scorsese frames stunning tableaux of the opera’s actors in their gorgeous costumes and precise make-up. He then swivels his camera to the audience of gentlemen in suits and women in gowns watching them. The spectators, in Scorsese’s hands, have become the spectacle.
The production design broadly reflects the taste of Archer, who identifies himself as a “dilettante” interested in the abstract concepts of “beauty” and “form.” Details from Wharton’s novels, like “tree-ferns arching their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo,” populate the ballroom where Archer announces his engagement to May. Scorsese commissioned over 1,000 imitation paintings of European classics to adorn the Gilded Age drawing rooms in which characters aimlessly chatter. These objects and pieces prevent us—maybe even the characters themselves—from discovering who they are beneath the elaborate designs.
At the time of its release, he called Innocence his most violent work yet.
“In reality,” Wharton wrote, “they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” Scorsese reveled in sculpted sentences like these from the book. Wharton’s narration was voiced in the movie by Oscar-winning actress Joanne Woodward and generously featured throughout, from lush descriptions to spikier observations.
The director’s main point of departure reveals itself in the projected distance from Archer’s thoughts, particularly regarding the careful bond he develops with Ellen Olenska. One scene finds Archer reading a letter in which Olenska’s estranged husband threatens to expose her adultery if she divorces him. Archer has been recruited by May’s family to serve as Olenska’s lawyer, to essentially convince her to return to her husband and save the family from embarrassment. But Archer is sympathetic to Olenska’s plight to find true happiness—if also, perhaps, attracted to her. Scorsese’s camera realizes this complexity. When a beaming Archer enters Olenska’s drawing room, expecting them to be alone, he notices another man’s belongings; the lighting goes dim and dark, and all we can focus on are Archer’s jealous, betrayed eyes.
It’s gradually made clear to Archer that his world is not one in which pursuing a life with Olenska is possible, which leads him to lash out. In one crucial scene opposite May, he opens a window for some fresh air. May insists he close it, or he might “catch” his death. Woodward’s narrator brings us inside Archer’s volatile state of mind: “What if it were SHE who was dead! If she were going to die—to die soon—and leave him free! Yes, May might die—people did: young people, healthy people like herself: she might die, and set him suddenly free.” The beautiful drawing room, adorned with paintings and a library of books, is suddenly a gilded cage. Archer then stands up, like Othello about to strangle Desdemona, but caresses May’s hair instead. It’s an unnerving visual, layered in emotion and meaning, that’s at once signature Scorsese in its ferocity and uncharted territory for the filmmaker.
May’s feelings toward Archer are of enduring mystery in both the book and the film. Is it a tactic of control when she allows Archer to break off their engagement to be with another woman, or a statement of her powerlessness? Her sharp social tact further complicates matters. When Archer insists that he wants to travel without her, May—intuiting that he might escape at last—hands him a letter Olenska wrote, saying she left for Europe for good. Scorsese forms a shadow around Archer’s eyes as he scans the letter. Then, before Archer can admit what he wants, May says he can’t travel unless he takes her with him, before adding, “That is, if the doctors will let me go…”—implying that she’s pregnant.
The filmmaker has faced consistent questions as to whether his portrayals of male violence are sufficiently critiqued or exceedingly justified.
Scorsese once argued that this was a moment Archer would remember all his life. His camera captures a dizzying range of angles in the room as May rises to “trap” Archer with her pregnancy before kneeling at his feet in tears. She seems to have weaponized her innocence to guilt Archer into staying with their family, placing into question how innocent she really was after all. It’s an idea carried over cleanly from Wharton’s novel to Scorsese’s movie, but the latter uses cinematic devices to communicate it in a fashion thrillingly specific to its medium.
The female characters of The Age of Innocence are afforded complexity and agency, even within the stifling confines of its 19th-century setting. That’s the power of Wharton, to be sure, and also a fascinating data point in Scorsese’s larger filmography. Before and following Innocence, the filmmaker has faced consistent questions as to whether his portrayals of male violence are sufficiently critiqued or exceedingly justified, leaving the women in many of those stories to act as passive witnesses with little dialogue. From Goodfellas to The Irishman, the debate has raged on, with Scorsese even occasionally weighing in to defend himself.
His upcoming film, Killers of the Flower Moon, unsparingly chronicles violence by white men against Native American women, marking another instance of Scorsese returning to this theme. Intriguingly, though, here was a case where he revised his point of focus. In interviews around the Killers premiere in Cannes, Scorsese spoke about his challenges of adapting David Grann’s nonfiction book, and his ultimate decision to reframe it so that the Osage women’s perspective was more fully centered. It’s an example of Scorsese considering and walking the tightrope of challenging a character’s worldview while simultaneously foregrounding more marginal, oppressed characters into the central storyline.
Perhaps appropriately, Wharton mastered this approach in Innocence. It’s not the typical, melodramatic period romance in the vein of that Faust opera that Archer enjoys in the movie’s opening. Scorsese met his match in Wharton because of her interest in those fine lines, and her resistance to a tidy sort of ending, wherein Archer might have ascended the stairs of Olenska’s Paris apartment to win back his true love. As the story ends, Archer realizes that rekindling his romance with Olenska would not satisfy his longings. He’s clinging to a youthful fantasy, one shaped by his surroundings and not the actual person.
Scorsese’s film holds up 30 years later because that tension between personal fulfillment and social obligation, so artfully and painfully dramatized, still resonates. Wharton holds up 113 years later for the same reason. But it’s difficult to imagine even a director as proven as Scorsese being able to mount a delicate drama of manners on the scale of his Innocence, which was backed by a Hollywood giant in Sony and budgeted at over $70 million in 2023 dollars. The Hollywood age in which Scorsese could pay homage to such a subtle masterpiece for an audience of millions has passed away, replaced by the era of superhero blockbusters and streaming bloat. On a rewatch, this Age of Innocence is now a movie brilliantly out of time—an irony, no doubt, that Wharton could have appreciated.