“The Age of Innocence”
The film “The Age of Innocence” goes into great depth about the two
contrasting issues, innocence and experience. The film takes place in New
York City, 1870 where the wealthy and sophisticated live. It is where
society seems to be almost utopian, but underneath it all there lies
betrayal and deceit. The director Martin Scorsese has adapted Edith
Wharton’s novel, and made into a cinematographic spectacular. It is with
the presentation of the film that the society of New York City comes alive.
Many techniques are used to portray the ideas of innocence and experience
from the novel. Such techniques are shown through the plot, characters,
symbols and filming effects.
The main plot of the film is concentrated around three characters and
how society does or would respond to their actions. The story is of a love
triangle that flies in the face of the conventions of society. Newland
Archer, a handsome and intelligent young lawyer engaged to May Welland, a
young woman who can sometimes be viewed as a child. Newland meets and is
instantly attracted to May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. The Countess
is rebounding from the scandal of having left her husband, a Polish Count,
but upper-class society will not let her forget her past. After many
meetings with Ellen, Newland slowly realizes that he really loves the
countess and soon learns that she returns his loves. Newland is trapped in
society, and faced with the choice of becoming a “traitor” to New York, or
staying as a respectable man. The plot is deliberately made to contain lots
of underlying messages and symbolic references. Ellen is seen as the
experienced one because she is the “other” woman that Newland is in love
with. Whereas May is the one who is up until the end, unaware of the
situation between Newland and Ellen.
Scorsese uses several visual techniques to subtly emphasize Newland
Archer’s sense of social claustrophobia. The zoom-out shot as the narrator
speaks of Archer’s imprisonment at the final dinner with Ellen is gradually
framed by curtains that narrow the scope of the frame. Flowers are used to
represent status, innocent or experienced.Lightercolourssuggest
innocents, and darker experienced. Different coloured flowers are shown
throughout the movie, a recurring symbol that makes it easier to identify
people and their status. The intro to the movie has several different
flowers blooming, suggesting unfolding revelations or innocence being born.
Colour is used as an associative tool for characters. Countess Ellen
Olenska’s colour schemes are initially used as contrast from the rest of
New York society, when she appears at the opera in a startling blue dress.
Later her colours become dark reds and bright yellow. The darker colours
symbolises that she has one through more in her life, and has experienced
much grief and pain. When Archer kisses the pink parasol which he believes
to be Ellen’s, the audience can anticipate that this is in fact not her
belonging, as the colour scheme is wrong for the character. May, in
contrast to Ellen, is associated with pastels and whites, the colours of
the ‘lilies of the valley’. The softer, paler colours show her youth and
innocence in similarity with a child.
Narration presents the same third-person viewpoint of the novel, with
much of the text taken directly from the book. Narration is important for
character development, as can be seen in the waltz scenes at the Beauforts.
The film is slowed; dialogue is muffled, although the source music remains
heard. It is the narrator who presents character profiles directly, more so
than any dialogue could in a culture of manners that is founded on
discretion. Narration helps to identify and learn more about the characters
and the different events that occur.
Newland Archer can be seen as an innocent or experienced person. He
changes from time to time throughout the film. A start he can be seen as an
innocent person. He is a young lawyer, and just starting to have clients.
He is just engaged, a big thing that changes your life forever. When Ellen
comes into the picture, he turns into a man of experience. Trying to teach
Ellen the ways of New York and to counsel her on how she should handle her
relationship with her husband. When Newland finds out about Ellen’s
feelings towards him, he knows it cannot go on if he is to remain as a
courteous member of society. He doesn’t want to become an outcast like
Ellen has, and he doesn’t want to hurt May.
Ellen Olenska is also both experienced and innocent. At the start she
is experienced because she wears vibrants colours and stands out. When she
was away she experiences a different way of life and then when she comes
back; she is an outcast in the conformist society of New York and
represents everything they go against. She is older than May and is more
adult, in her actions and thoughts. Ellen is turned into an innocent, when
she realises that society doesn’t accept her. She then sets out to become
as American as possible, leading her to throw out her old life and nearly
everything she usually enjoys.
May Welland is constantly innocent in the film. She represents a
conformist in society and sometimes acts a little nave. She is one of the
younger characters in the film and has had less experience, because it is
assumed she has been sheltered as a child, unaware to the unpleasantness
under society’s cover. There are times when she is upfront and strong, when
she is accusing Newland of seeing another woman. She is able to be firm and
have authority, but soon after Newland convinces her nothing is happening,
she returns to her girlish state. At the end of the film, May is unaware
that she is doomed to be forever trapped in the New York society. All she
has known is the way of New York, not yet to have explored the rest of the
The film accurately portrays the ideas of innocence and experience.
In nearly every aspect of the film there is always the bottom of line of
who is innocent and who is experienced. With the use of different
techniques the message comes across a lot clearer and understandable.
Scorsese has successfully revealed the society of New York and how things
are not always how they seem.