In 1870s New York City, Newland Archer is planning to marry the respectable young May Welland. May's cousin, the American heiress Countess Ellen Olenska, has returned to New York after a disastrous marriage to a dissolute Polish Count. At first she is ostracized by society and vicious innuendo is spread, but May's family boldly stands by the Countess and she is gradually accepted by the very finest of New York's old families. Archer prematurely announces his engagement to May, but as he comes to know the Countess, he begins to appreciate her unconventional views on New York society and he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his new fiancée May and her innocence, lack of personal opinion, and sense of self.
After the Countess announces her intention of divorcing her husband, Archer supports her desire for freedom, but he feels compelled to act on behalf of the family and persuade the Countess to remain married. When Archer realizes that he has unwittingly been falling in love with the Countess, he abruptly leaves the next day to be reunited with May and her parents, who are in Florida on vacation. Archer asks May to shorten their engagement, but May becomes suspicious and asks him if his hurry to get married is prompted by the fear that he is marrying the wrong person. Archer reassures May that he is in love with her. When back in New York, Archer calls on the Countess and admits that he is in love with her, but a telegram arrives from May announcing that her parents have pushed forward the wedding date.
After their wedding and honeymoon, Archer and May settle down to married life in New York. Over time, Archer's memory of the Countess fades. When the Countess returns to New York to care for her grandmother, she and Archer agree to consummate their affair. But then suddenly, the Countess announces her intention to return to Europe. May throws a farewell party for the Countess, and after the guests leave, May announces to Archer that she is pregnant and that she told Ellen her news two weeks earlier.
The years pass: Archer is 57 and has been a dutiful, loving father and faithful husband. The Archers have had three children. May had previously died of infectious pneumonia and Archer had mourned her in earnest. Archer's engaged son, Ted convinces him to travel to France. There, Ted has arranged to visit the Countess Olenska at her Paris apartment. Archer has not seen the countess in over 25 years. Ted confides to his father May's deathbed confession that "... she knew we were safe with you, and always would be. Because once, when she asked you to, you gave up the thing you wanted most." Archer confesses that she never asked him. That evening outside the Countess' apartment, Archer sends his son alone to visit her. While sitting outside the apartment, he recollects their time together and gets up and steps away.
The Age of Innocence was filmed on location primarily in Troy, New York. The opera scenes were filmed at the Philadelphia Academy of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The scenes set in the home of Mrs. Mingott were filmed in "The Castle", a fraternity house belonging to the Alpha Tau chapter of Pi Kappa Phi at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Formerly known as the Paine Mansion, after its completion in 1896 (then-estimated to cost one-half million dollars), it was heralded as the grandest house in all of Troy. The scenes depicting the country house in snow were filmed inside the circa 1737 Dutch-colonial Luykas Van Alen House, in Kinderhook, New York. Only one major set was built, for an ornate ballroom sequence at the Beaufort residence.
The opening title sequence was created by Elaine and Saul Bass.
The famous paintings featured in the film were high-quality reproductions by Troubetzkoy Paintings Ltd.
The bursts of color used as fade out were inspired by Michael Powell's Black Narcissus and Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.
The film grossed $32.3 million in the US from a $34 million budget.
The Age of Innocence currently holds a score of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a score of 83 on Metacritic, indicating largely positive reviews from critics.
Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote: "Taking The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton's sad and elegantly funny novel about New York's highest society in the 1870s, Martin Scorsese has made a gorgeously uncharacteristic Scorsese film...The film is the work of one of America's handful of master craftsmen."
Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote: "The story told here is brutal and bloody, the story of a man's passion crushed, his heart defeated. Yet it is also much more, and the last scene of the film, which pulls everything together, is almost unbearably poignant." He then added the film to his "Great Movies" collection, and defined the film as "one of Scorsese's greatest films".
Peter Travers in Rolling Stone wrote: "A superlative cast catches Wharton's urgency. Ryder, at her loveliest, finds the guile in the girlish May – she'll use any ruse that will help her hold on to Archer. Day-Lewis is smashing as the man caught between his emotions and the social ethic. Not since Olivier in Wuthering Heights has an actor matched piercing intelligence with such imposing good looks and physical grace. Pfeiffer gives the performance of a lifetime as the outcast countess."
Desson Howe in the Washington Post wrote: "There's an alert, thinking presence behind the camera. And, in front of the camera, performers Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder suffuse this saga of repressed longing and spiritual suffering with elegant authority.... Known primarily for modern street pictures, such as Taxi Driver and GoodFellas, Scorsese shows he can flex an entirely different set of muscles and still make a great movie.
Todd McCarthy in Variety wrote: "For sophisticated viewers with a taste for literary adaptations and visits to the past, there is a great deal here to savor....Day-Lewis cuts an impressive figure as Newland... The two principal female roles are superbly filled.... Scorsese brings great energy to what could have been a very static story, although his style is more restrained and less elaborate than usual."
Rita Kempley, also in the Washington Post, wrote: "Perhaps it shouldn't come as such a grand surprise that he [Martin Scorsese] is as deft at exploring the nuances of Edwardian manners as he is the laws of modern-day machismo."
Time Out wrote: "The performances are excellent, while the director employs all the tools of his trade to bring his characters and situations vividly to life... Scorsese's most poignantly moving film."
But not all the critics had positive remarks. Marc Savlov in the Austin Chronicle wrote: "At two hours and 13 minutes, Scorsese has allowed himself enough time to follow Wharton's book to the letter, and also enough time to include long stretches of painfully wearisome society functions and banter. As a period piece, it's a joy to behold, but with such an indecisive little newt of a protagonist, it's just hard to give a damn what happens."
At the Academy Awards, The Age of Innocence won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design (Gabriella Pescucci), and was nominated for the awards for Best Supporting Actress (Winona Ryder), Best Adapted Screenplay (Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese), Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein) and Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti, Robert J. Franco).
At the Golden Globe Awards, The Age of Innocence won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture (Winona Ryder), and was nominated for the awards for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director – Motion Picture (Martin Scorsese) and Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama (Michelle Pfeiffer).
At the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs), The Age of Innocence won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Miriam Margolyes). The film received another nomination in this category, for Winona Ryder, and was also nominated for the awards for Best Cinematography (Michael Ballhaus) and Best Production Design (Dante Ferretti).
In addition to her Academy Award and BAFTA Award nominations and Golden Globe Award win, Winona Ryder won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress and the Southeastern Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actress.
In addition to his Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations, Martin Scorsese won the National Board of Review Award for Best Director and the Elvira Notari Prize at the Venice Film Festival (shared with Michelle Pfeiffer), as well as a nomination for the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing - Feature Film.
Elmer Bernstein was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or Television.
The musical score for The Age of Innocence was composed by Elmer Bernstein, who previously collaborated with Scorsese on Cape Fear (1991).