In many Martin Scorsese movies, the characters' frustrations and passions -- Jake LaMotta's jealousy, Jordan Belfort's greed -- bubble up to the surface, exploding in plain view. In The Age of Innocence (1993), Scorsese's goosebump-good adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1920 novel about the pomp and circumstance that dictated all aspects of life within the uppermost social enclaves of 1870s New York, the opposite proves true.
This is a movie where a single brittle remark might seem to alter the course of a candlelit dinner, only for the congenial facade to be immediately rescued by polite hedging, demurred glances and deft subject-changing. The most intense of emotions are tucked carefully away, hidden under propriety and inflexible rules of etiquette, private fantasies never to be referenced or spoken of aloud. In one scene, lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) imagines Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) wrapping her arms around him; Scorsese indulges the young man's vision, showing the pair caught in a desperate embrace. Of course, Newland does nothing about his feelings, the damned fool; how could he, when he stands engaged, to the great merriment of those in his orbit, to Ellen's cousin, the perfectly proper and generally-agreed-to-be-ravishing May Welland (Winona Ryder)? Still, he'll always have the fantasy.
To make a sumptuous period piece about well-mannered imbeciles with money seemed to some filmgoers a new challenge for Scorsese, when The Age of Innocence was first released. (Now 25, it has received a new 4K restoration.) But the movie is not an unfathomable departure, least of all geographically. In fact, the partnership of Scorsese's volatile style and Wharton's decorum-oriented milieu clarifies insights from both artists.