Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) is 29 years old, and she has been for the past 79 years. An auto accident in 1937 involving snowflakes, cold water and lightning alters her riboflavin (?) levels in a way that won’t be truly understood until 2035, and from that point on her body becomes immune to the ravages of time and aging. We meet her in modern day San Francisco as she’s approaching a scheduled move to Oregon – she moves every decade or so and uses false names and forged identities to prevent anyone from discovering her secret – and it becomes clear that aside from her daughter (Ellen Burstyn, quickly cornering the market on characters who appear older than their parent), her dog and a blind friend she lives a life of self-imposed emotional isolation.
That protective shell is shaken when she meets and falls in love with a young philanthropist named Ellis (Michiel Huisman) who doggedly pursues, harasses and stalks her with no acknowledgement of boundaries. Ah romance! The pull of her heart is strong, but as we learn via flashbacks and intrusive narration Adaline’s condition sees her resigned to running away from love time and again instead of embracing it.
For the briefest of moments, director Lee Toland Krieger’s new magical, time-spanning romantic drama The Age of Adaline threatens to become this year’s Winter’s Tale. That film took “batshit-crazy” to new highs (and earned our only ? review grade as a result), but while Adaline teases a similar detour towards bonkers-ville it too frequently settles on the blandly dramatic.
Trouble starts almost immediately as an unseen narrator (Hugh Ross, who also narrated The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford) details events for us as they play out onscreen. A man picks up Adaline’s windblown hat, and the voice tells us that this “uncommon gallantry” – men were apparently real pricks in the first half of the 20th century – led to marriage and a child before his death. The accident that made her immortal is presented with striking visuals, but they play as the narrator breaks down the magic of it all with faux-scientific explanations. She’s inexplicably picked up by the FBI so they can “run some tests,” but she escapes a minute later with the subject to never again be revisited.
We’re given a scattershot selection of flashback scenes, but again and again the voice tells us what’s happening instead of simply allowing the film to show us. The present fares better in that regard as the narrator presumably found something more engaging in his navel, but while there are sweet and creative moments shared between Adaline and Ellis they don’t generate much in the way of chemistry or emotional warmth together. Part of the problem is his stalker-like persistence that brings him to her workplace, her home and beyond her multiple protestations, but there’s also just a flatness to their romance. They’re both wealthy (he invented an algorithm! she bought stock in Xerox!), they both know of quirky historical sites around the city, their love is near-instantaneous and none of it feels tangible.
Instead, and surprisingly, the film’s only real heart and emotional pull comes with the arrival of Harrison Ford as a lover from Adaline’s past. Ford’s past several performances have been nothing short of a masterclass in how to sleepwalk through a leading role, but he delivers more humanity in his supporting turn here than anyone could have expected.
None of this is meant to take away from Lively’s performance though which is the most accomplished and complex of her young career. Adaline is an old woman in a much younger body, and Lively resists the urge to act the character’s outward age – and her own as Lively is also in her late 20s – instead choosing to embrace Adaline’s long life through mannerisms and vocal affectations. She speaks and carries herself as an older and wiser woman than those around her – Lively’s not acting “old,” she’s acting experienced and resigned – and she keeps it subtle throughout. Lively’s fantastic here, but the script lets her down.
The film does look quite good though as cinematographer David Lanzenberg captures the beauty and power of San Francisco and the Bay Area to great effect. Krieger’s third feature (after The Vicious Kind and Celeste & Jesse Forever) shows a sure hand as well, but as with Lively’s performance it’s hampered by a script that can’t quite decide what to do with its premise.
The Age of Adaline is a magical love story that muzzles the magic and mutes the love. See it with someone you once cared about.
The Upside: Blake Lively gives an aged and understated performance; Harrison Ford surprises with the film’s only real heart and emotion; takes good advantage of San Francisco and the Bay Area; the books named after flower gag is great and destined to be copied by romantics everywhere
The Downside: Attempts at romance are troubling and mishandled; emotionally flat until past the one hour mark; narrator squashes anything resembling magic with gibberish about ampules and defibrillators