From its early stages of production, Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence was perceived as an anomaly in the director’s grit laden career of wise guys and mean streets. But its tacit chessboard of strict tribal values and its morally conflicted protagonist Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) are perfect for Scorsese, and his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel initiated a more somber, if also more prestigious, stage of the filmmaker’s later years, during which he would repeatedly reflect on lost ideals of paradises that never were, the “Way of the Future,” to use The Aviator’s closing refrain, lapping up dreams with its mechanical indifference. The Age of Innocence’s sensuousness of reflective light and fingers caressing, but never fully assimilating, with a tangible object of desire shines like the melancholic recognition of a mode of aesthetic framing fading away.
The time of The Age of Innocence’s autumn 1993 release marked a rapidly changing period for filmmaking, as Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park altered blockbusting a few months before, the CGI creations, much like the dinosaurs in Michael Crichton’s story, eating up their flesh and blood analog makers. The Age of Innocence was comparably Old World, a tactile period film fetishizing legions of artifacts, the camera savoring the cracked textures of painted canvases or the heavy smoke hovering in a dark study. Coming after Goodfellas’ accolades and the commercial success of the evangelical-tinged thriller Cape Fear, Scorsese was at the height of his powers in 1993. A film about bygone worlds, I’m hopelessly moved watching The Age of Innocence now, not only by a story of unconsummated passion between Archer and Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), but how the film is a haunted cathedral of clockwork ghosts in solemn ritual, where physical ornaments of fabric, flowers, food dishes, and jewelry are emotional and ideological vehicles struggling to endure through restless transition.
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