In this classic love story, Martin Scorsese sweeps us away on waves of dizzying eroticism and rapturous romance. Without bloodshed or a holler of "fuck you," Scorsese — the raging bull of directors — bursts into the china shop that is Edith Wharton's 1920 novel, The Age of Innocence. He roughs things up a bit, though nothing gets shattered except our preconceptions. Set in the posh watering holes of New York society in the 1870s, this thrillingly directed and acted drama deals with delicate matters far removed from the violent action of Scorsese's work from Mean Streets to GoodFellas. But look closer. Though a century apart, Scorsese and Wharton are both experts in New York's tribal warfare. Behind the elegant facade of Wharton's characters is a calculated cruelty that Scorsese's hoods could easily recognize.
Society is determined to wipe out the budding relationship between lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), the married cousin of May Welland (Winona Ryder), to whom Archer is engaged. Archer and his fiancee represent two of the finest families in New York. They belong. The countess does not. Though she's a granddaughter of the formidably fat but kindly Mrs. Mingott (the superb Miriam Margolyes), Olenska has married a foreigner — like her mother before her — and lived in scandalous European circles. It's the count's infidelities that send Olenska home to seek a divorce. Society is sympathetic to her plight but not to what it perceives as her boldness in speech and dress and her seduction of Archer.
Oganized crime could take lessons in closing ranks from these reigning families, celebrated by the social arbiters Sillerton Jackson (Alec McCowen) and Larry Lefferts (Richard E. Grant). The countess must be forced back to Europe and her relationship with Archer destroyed and all this accomplished without the slightest indication that behind the polite courtesies lies a brutal conspiracy carried out with the formality of an execution.
Spurning Masterpiece Theatre twittiness, Scorsese cuts to the primal passions of Wharton's tale. He and co-writer Jay Cocks, a former film critic for Time, find a kinship with Wharton in the urge to challenge rules that crush the rebel spirit. Wharton grew up under the iron glove of New York aristocracy and escaped it by settling in Europe. She was 58 when The Age of Innocence was published. The novel was a backward glance to a time when she identified strongly with the limited choices facing Archer and the countess.
A superlative cast catches Wharton's urgency. Ryder, at her loveliest, finds the guile in the girlish May — she'll use any ruse that will help her hold on to Archer. Day-Lewis is smashing as the man caught between his emotions and the social ethic. Not since Olivier in Wuthering Heights has an actor matched piercing intelligence with such imposing good looks and physical grace. Pfeiffer gives the performance of a lifetime as the outcast countess. With her hair in tight curls that accentuate her pale beauty, she seems lit from within. Her brilliantly nuanced portrayal puts an early lock on the Best Actress Oscar.
For a movie about two people who never consummate their desire, Age is alive with a sensuality that draws inspiration from sources as diverse as Luchino Visconti's Senso and William Wyler's The Heiress. The lovers must struggle to steal a few moments alone. Scorsese makes repression seem wantonly erotic as Archer caresses the folds of the countess's gown, presses his lips to the tip of her satin shoe or simply breathes in the scent of her parasol. Archer is intoxicated with this woman, whose beauty and frank wit shatter his inherited ideas about respectability. "Each time I see you," he says, "you happen to me all over again."
No screen couple has ever been this sexy with their clothes on. Scorsese stages their most touching scene in a horse-drawn carriage, huddled together against the forces that divide them. The costumes of Gabriella Pescucci, however sumptuous, erect another barrier. Even the countess's gloves have buttons. When Archer manages to expose the flesh of her wrist and rub it against his cheek, the moment packs genuine carnal sizzle. Startled in midkiss by the flash of a street lamp through the carriage window, Archer foresees a place where the two can be together without hiding. The countess is less naive. "Oh, my dear — where is that country?" she asks.
While Scorsese and Cocks deserve credit for staying faithful to Wharton, they err in trying to include too much of her voice. Joanne Woodward narrates with tart elegance, speaking passages directly from the novel. It works in the early ballroom scene, when the denizens of society are introduced in a witty parody of GoodFellas. Instead of being introduced to Freddy No-nose, Pete the Killer and Frankie the Wop, we're meeting the ultrasnooty Van der Luydens, Henry (Michael Gough) and Louisa (the late Alexis Smith), and the nouveauriche Beauforts, Julius (Stuart Wilson) and Regina (Mary Beth Hurt).
It works less well when the narrator tells us what to think. The device is most damaging when Archer and May give their first dinner party as young marrieds in honor of the countess's departure for Europe. The scene itself is superb, with the actors showing the pain each character is feeling behind their idle chatter. Then comes that voice: "From the seamless performance of this ritual, Archer knew that New York believed him to be Madame Olenska's lover. And he understood for the first time that his wife shared that belief." The voice-over steps on what the actors are doing and distracts us from making our own judgments.
That the heavy narration doesn't crush the film is a tribute to the artistry of one of the best directors in the world. The Age of Innocence is a visual feast in which Scorsese and his collaborators — cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker — ravish the senses. Take the opening scene at the opera house. It starts on close-ups of small details — the singer's painted mouth, the gardenia in Archer's lapel, the blur of jewels and clothes seen through opera glasses. Then the full view as the countess extends her fan across the expanse of the theater, and we catch our breath in amazement.
But beneath the dazzle, Scorsese finds the details that define character. At the end of the film, a much older Archer sits on a bench outside the countess's Paris apartment. He ignores the pleas of his grown son (Robert Sean Leonard) to call on the woman who almost snatched him from the jaws of conformity. The past is frozen in Archer's memory, along with his feelings. Seven decades after its debut, The Age of Innocence touches a nerve that owes nothing to cozy nostalgia. Scorsese has made the most extravagantly heartfelt film of his career about the impossibility of believing that love conquers all.