Daniel Day-Lewis plays young attorney Newland Archer, outwardly engaged to the young May Welland (Winona Ryder) for love.
We gather that love was only the offshoot, perhaps the illusion forced by an arranged coupling.
Scorsese modeled his production after costume dramas of classic Hollywood, also known as women’s films or period pieces.
Commonly “A” productions, such classic melodramas and romances featured women suffering from affairs of the heart, societal pressures, family dynamics, or an overarching historical event.
But the social rules and heavily regulated manners of New York aristocrats, as opposed to the viciousness of the city, represent a brutality in this film more visceral than any of Scorsese’s more physically violent pictures—the type of film for which Scorsese is best known.
The violence exists in the semiotics of worldly goods, via what the film’s omniscient narrator dubs “arbitrary signs” within the regimented social milieu, and a subtle set of unwritten rules enforced by expressly practiced class conventions, harshly dictating the lives of the late nineteenth century’s New York elite.
Films such as (1999) each reveals the seediness, psychological disturbance, and violence teeming within a filthy and obscene metropolis, where the city itself reflects the damaged characters.
Here, Scorsese adapts Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel and explores how , on the exterior, has been steeped in a pretense of formal behavior, repressed romantic desires, conspicuous ornamentation, material goods, and above all the importance of outward appearances.
Newland’s true passion is for the Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), a social outcast from Poland and May’s cousin.
Countess Olenska has returned to New York after a scandalous decision to leave her husband, personifying rebellion in her willingness to assert her own desires, thus all the more attractive to the reticent Archer.