The underlying issue that the film revolves around is the issue of freedom or individuality against societal dictates. The film’s setting is New York in the late 19th Century. Edith Wharton wrote the book, which the movie was based upon and she was born in such a setting. She admitted that on the time she wrote the book, such age of innocence was long gone. Despite that, the main dilemma of the book (and consequently the film) is timeless as it is still affecting societies at the present time. Social mores are dictated upon an individual in order to be accepted and for order in the community to be maintained. On the other hand, the individual struggles against such restrictions, as she/he perceives it to be a hindrance to her/his own personal living. This tension is dramatically emphasized in the movie and the development of events within the movie show the moral dilemma that people go through when encountering the crossroad of choosing between your passion and the dictates of society.
The plot revolves around the Newland Archer, a young affluent lawyer, who is about to marry May Welland, also coming from a rich and influential family. Marriage then was not decided by love but by the intention of keeping the wealth of the rich families intact and even gain more wealth. They lived in a society where the aristocracy reigned and where their movement was dictated by an invisible code common to all. The aristocrats were more than willing to live under such rules just to maintain the status quo. Selfish desires were set aside for the good of the class. Most, if not all, were fine with the set-up in fear of staining their reputation. Newland Archer is one of those who were content with the status quo of repressed emotions for the "good" of everybody and for the preservation of their culture and lifestyle. He had thoughts of his own and even observed the absurdity of this faade his society puts up with yet he accepts it for his own perceived good. In this society, people had to hide their individuality under their masks of blind compliance to their norms. This charade of theirs is even more emphasized by the shots Scorsese makes throughout the film. His usually fast-paced camera movement is tempered here to focus on the background. The grandeur of the drawing rooms, the flowers, and the painting-like backdrop of the scenes are emphasized by the scenes in the movie as if the director wants to convey to his audience that the focus is on the appearance or form and not the substance. It parallels the mind-set of the society portrayed in the film.
Then, the movie proceeds with introducing the conflict in the form of May's cousin Ellen Olenska. Considered to be an outcast by the New York aristocracy for marrying against the society rules and living in "scandalous" European circles, here is a woman who thinks on her own and lives on her own rules. She seeks a divorce from her Polish husband and the family pushes Archer to dissuade her from doing so. This leads Archer to be enthralled by Ellen's disposition. He is captivated by her way of thinking and her bravura to face up against the same rules they share to be absurd. He gets a taste of freedom and he yearns for more. In a society that seems to be like an iron glove, it is all the more relevant that the most explosive scene in the movie involves gloves. In a movie that portrays repressed desire tasted and ends