In Which We Can’t Get Over The Glory of This Age This Is Like The Best Age

Our week with Marty Scorsese rolls on, as Molly Young discusses The Age of Innocence. Catch up on all the sterling moments of the series here, here, and here.

Inference of the Presence of Desire

by Molly Young

The Age of Innocence

1993, 139 minutes

dir. Martin Scorsese

The Age of Innocence yields all the pleasures of a period piece: shots of gloved hands resting on waxen surfaces, a well-browned duck being expertly carved, a very fat woman in sausage curls. All the pleasures, too, of Daniel Day-Lewis, who wears his character’s fate like a child in a tight suit – miserable but trained not to cry.

rolling stone review

You need to know very little of the plot to enjoy Scorsese’s film.

There is a respectful and passionless marriage between Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and May Welland (Winona Ryder). May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) has spent some time in Europe and returns home at the closure of a crummy marriage to station herself in New York. She is scarred, witty and wise. Newland falls in love with her and she with him, but they prevent themselves from doing anything. That is the outline.

Wharton is subtle, and not subtly at odds with Scorsese, whose métier can be defined as an ability to conjure and explode volatile male drives onscreen.

Wharton’s best characters are delicate, injured conversationalists. Scorsese’s best characters tend to be walking ids: Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle, Charlie Cappa.


the men and women of scorsese

But the two have something in common, which is an obsessive consideration of American destinies. The basic thesis of Wharton’s novel is that there is nothing sadder than giving up on love. Worse than avoiding it or being denied it is surrendering it yourself. Her characters are constantly doing this, and Wharton’s genius was to propose it as a uniquely American form of tragedy.

karli lukas on the film

That is a big chunk for Scorsese to bite off. And there’s lots to admire in his film. The olde-tymey New York accents, the swooping parlor shots, the libidos dampened to lowest possible visibility without being extinguished. We infer the presence of desire mostly though a wiggle of Daniel Day-Lewis’ right eyebrow.

Scorsese is surprisingly good at tending an atmosphere of corseted desire. But then most of Wharton’s heroines have a peculiarly masculine quality about them, so maybe it isn’t so far for the director to stretch. A Jane Austen adaptation, on the other hand, would be something to worship.

Molly Young is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can read her previous work on TR here, here, and here. She is the auteur of Magic Molly.

portrait of the author brushing her teeth


“Mobilia” – The Field (mp3)

“Crooked Teeth” – Death Cab for Cutie (mp3)



“You’ll Find a Way (Switch and Sinden Mix)” – Santogold (mp3)

“Roll On” – Sneaker Pimps (mp3)


An end to Julia and Jakob.

A trip to the bookstore.

The best book of the year.

12 thoughts on “In Which We Can’t Get Over The Glory of This Age This Is Like The Best Age

  1. Not yet but am very excited! I don’t have a TV, so I have to wait for the DVD version. I’m also excited for the new Northanger Abbey. In the old one, the girl playing Catherine Morland looked *exactly* like my therapist!

  2. Sorry. The adaptation and starring of the wretched Billie Piper was friggin terrible. Watch the 1999 version and thank yourself later.

    Age of Innocence is one of my favorite Scorsese movies along with Taxi Driver and Good Fellas. If that makes any sense.

  3. See, I didn’t like that version of Mansfield Park at all! It deviated from the original in truly uncomfortable ways. The problem is that it was about 85% faithful to the novel, which is a strange ratio. It should either be stringently faithful (BBC Pride and Prejudice) or an unmistakable infidel (Pride & Prejudice starring Keira Knightley)

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