With plenty of charm and genuine romantic spirit, a touch of magical realism, and a shining performance from Blake Lively, The Age of Adaline is as compelling a film love story as we’ve seen in theaters in a while. Is it somewhat predictable? Of course it is — it’s a Hollywood romance, and Hollywood romance that ends in any other way aside from “happily ever after” is usually referred to as “tragedy.”
But regardless of whether or not you can tell where the film is going well before it gets there, it keeps you engaged and enchanted throughout thanks to the performances turned in by the cast and the “soft sci-fi” and time-spanning elements of its concept. Think of it as Nicholas Sparks meets “The Twilight Zone” — how could that mash-up not hold your interest, at least just to see how it plays out?
As we learn from the Rod Serling-esque voice over narration that bookends the film, Adaline Bowman (Lively) was born in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1908, yet somehow in 2014 is still physically aged 29, living and working as a library archivist in the very same city. Her life began just as anyone else’s does — she grew up, fell in love, got married and gave birth to a daughter, Flemming. But just shy of her 30th birthday, a near-death experience highlighted by a flash of lightning changes Adaline’s life forever, as she and Flemming discover that her body has been rendered immune from the ravages of time.
So in 2014, Adaline lives under an assumed name, avoiding attention and forming close ties, keeping her true life story a secret from any and all save the now-elderly Flemming (Ellen Burstyn). Her experiences have taught her to stay on the move, to never live or work in one place under the same name for too long lest the wrong people start to notice how she remains physically unchanged and want to know why. But after living the same solitary existence for sixty years, through two World Wars and a half-century full of change and progress, immortality and the seclusion that is its price has taken its toll.
A chance to make a change presents itself just when Adaline begins her preparations to move on to her next life and new identity. She meets Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman, “Orphan Black”, “Game of Thrones”), a young philanthropist who is smitten with her at first sight and brings all his vibrant charm and energy to bear as he works tirelessly to sweep Adaline off her feet. Despite her best efforts to keep him at a distance emotionally, she finds herself drawn to Ellis’s intelligence and gentle manner, as well as his love of history, a love they both share, though for obviously different reasons. Despite keeping her secret from him, she eventually lets herself get closer to Ellis than she has anyone else in decades, but that connection is challenged almost immediately when Ellis brings her home to meet his parents on the weekend of their 40th wedding anniversary. There, she meets Ellis’s father William (Harrison Ford), only she’s met him before, 45 years earlier when they met in London and fell in love, and he recognizes her from the moment he sees her, or at least he thinks he does. After all, how could this young woman with his son look and sound exactly like the woman he knew in the ’60s? It’s only a matter of time before the truth, however improbable, comes out, leaving Adaline with the choice of running away and disappearing yet again, or staying and taking the chance that the affection and connection she’s found is worth holding on to, regardless of what the future might hold.
In recent years, magical realism, or story elements that can certainly be argued to be magical realist in nature, have found their way back into film after a brief heyday in the 1990’s when filmmakers and studios, encouraged by the success of the film adaptation of Como Agua por Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), rushed to mine the wealth of magical realist literature produced by Latin American authors in the ’50s and ’60s. In the past half-decade, films such as Midnight in Paris, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Birdman, and now The Age of Adaline arguably best display how just a touch of the fantastical used to the steer the direction of an otherwise realistically presented story can produce wondrous entertainment. What all these films have in common is that, in degrees that vary slightly depending on the film, the “magic” simply “happens” — there’s no effort to overly explain it, no science fiction jargon or fantasy clichés utilized in order to try to make it the center of the narrative. Whatever happens just happens, and from there we watch as the characters touched by that happening adapt to their situations and live their now somewhat extraordinary lives.
In terms of this film, what that approach does is put the onus for the film’s impact squarely on the comely shoulders of Blake Lively and her supporting cast, just as it might be in any other romantic drama, and she and her cast mates deliver the goods in every measurable way. Aided by a smart script credited to screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz that adeptly avoids cliché and schmaltz in spoken dialogue, Lively’s Adaline is a character that shows subtle changes over time — manner of speech, hair and fashion, even body language — but always retains a timeless mixture of grace, elegance, and vulnerability that makes her captivating to watch. Huisman, all bright smiles and irrepressible charm as Ellis, proves to be a perfect match on screen for what Lively brings to the pairing — if you make it through all their scenes together in the film without smiling even once, then you’ve got ice water in your veins. Lively’s scenes with Ellen Burstyn are also impressively delivered, as the two must work against what an audience’s natural expectations would be and convey a mother/daughter relationship with Burstyn as the daughter. Harrison Ford, for his part, also stands out in a role quite unlike most of what we’ve seen him in throughout his career.
Visually, the movie is also a great deal of fun to watch for the way the different time periods shown in Adaline’s memories and flashbacks are brought to life. Director Lee Toland Krieger (Jesse and Celeste Forever) and his crew pay homage to the color palettes and presentation of films of the past in order to delineate the different eras Adaline has lived through, casting the wartime ’40s in sepia tones, the ’50s in predominantly primary colors a la Technicolor processing, soaking the ’60s in gauzy sunshine, etc. There’s no one consistent visual tone here, nor should there be — the varied approach just adds to the veracity of what the audience sees, that these vignettes look exactly how they might in a photo or a film of the era in which they take place.
All that said, yes, there’s no escaping the fact that no doubt, if you’ve seen a movie or two or twenty in your lifetime, in particular big screen romances, you’ll know just how this will all play out about halfway through the film. If you can turn the part of your brain that thinks ahead during a film to try to predict where things are going, by all means, do so, and sit back and enjoy The Age of Adaline. If you can’t turn it off, well, that’s okay — just focus on everything else that’s does exceed your expectations and is done well, because there’s probably a lot.
Score: 4 out of 5
The Age of Adaline
Starring Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Kathy Baker, Harrison Ford, and Ellen Burstyn. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger.
Running Time: 110 minutes
Rated PG-13 for a suggestive comment.