Lively is the beating heart of this San Francisco-set romance fantasy.
The Age of Adaline
Like Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, and Greta Garbo before her, Blake Lively has got the kind of glamorous, rarified Hollywood beauty that makes time stand still. In The Age of Adaline she plays Adaline Bowman, a young woman for whom time stands still quite literally, a freak accident in the early 20th century endowing her with the gift (curse?) of eternal youth. Set in present-day San Francisco, Adaline is a romance fantasy with a preposterous-but-amusing supernatural premise, a great cast, and a promising young director in Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind, Celeste and Jesse Forever), who’s made a conventional story feel new again not by reinventing the wheel, but by giving his all to make the best damn wheel he can.
While we’ve collectively, understandably developed a cringe reflex in the midst of the current Nicholas Sparks wave of cheesy rom-coms (a wave that shows no signs of receding, god help us), Adaline is a modern romance worthy of an honest look. Lively (and her stunning wardrobe) will catch your eye immediately, but it’s her moving turn as a girl time forgot that’ll keep you in your seat. Better still, the film gives you something to take home with you, a powerful message about the quality of time as opposed to the quantity of it.
When we first meet Adaline it’s the present day, and she’s actually not Adaline: she’s Jennifer Larson, a 29-year-old archivist living in San Francisco. In a series of flashbacks sparked by vintage newsreels she digs up at work, we learn her superhero-like origin story. Adaline Bowman was born in 1908 and grew to be a beautiful young woman, finding herself in a happy marriage and blessed with a cute-as-a-button daughter, Flemming. Then, the accident: Reeling from the sudden death of her husband, Adaline crashes her car in the middle of a rare California snowstorm, plunging into a freezing cold river. A lightning bolt saves her from certain death, and in addition to jumpstarting her heart, the jolt of electricity stops her body’s aging process. The science of the phenomenon is explained in storybook-style narration by Hugh Ross, who cites a thermonuclear law that won’t be discovered until 2035. It’s a funny little wink of a joke that helps the absurdity of it all go down the hatch much easier.
As time passes her by and her loved ones out-age her (present-day Flemming easily passes as her grandmother), Adaline is forced into a life on the run, mostly to stay out of the hands of the government, who’d most likely like to cut her open and exploit her unique immunity to aging. This brings us up to speed and back to Jennifer Larson, her cover for the time being until she moves to a new city and assumes a new identity.
While some may view the prospect of preserved youth as a dream come true (I’m turning 30 in about a month, so to me the idea sure doesn’t suck), Adaline’s found her life to be lonely and cold. She can’t start any long-term friendships. Adaline is constantly forced to deceive almost everyone around her, whipping up lies out of thin air so as to not give away her extraordinary condition. You can see the veiled torment on her face as she shoos people away, throwing to the wind what might have been beautiful human connections.
The worst part of the deal for Adaline is that she must avoid or stamp out any potential romances. Aside from one “moment of weakness”, Adaline’s managed to keep the boys at bay; that is, until she meets charming philanthropist Ellis (Game of Thrones‘ Michiel Huisman), whose dogged flirting (and dashing good looks) at a New Year’s Eve party earns him a spot in the back of Adaline’s mind. Though reluctant at first, she eventually can’t resist Ellis’ charms, and for the second time in her post-lightning bolt life, she has a “moment of weakness.”
The first half of the movie is mostly carried by Lively, as the proceedings are pretty conventional, running through a litany of rom-com clichés. When things start to get more serious between Adaline and Ellis, however, an unexpected twist shakes up the entire movie, changing the mood and upping the stakes way higher than one would expect. The sudden change in tone revolves around a contrivance that’s arguably more implausible than Adaline’s condition, but if you bought the car crash, you’ll probably be fine with it. The main cast doubles in size, adding Kathy Baker and Harrison Ford into the fold as Ellis’ parents. The movie gets really, really good from this point on, and the addition of the older cast members seems to light a fire under Lively and Huisman, who noticeably step up their game.
The film’s greatest gift might be that it harbors one of Ford’s best performances in years. You can never tell these days how invested he’ll be in any given project, but Krieger must have the magic touch. I can’t remember the last time Ford looked so invigorated. He’s not playing a grumpy man (himself) here, but rather a man who’s missing something deep in his soul and carries around a world of regret. Almost every scene he’s in threw me for a loop.
Even Ford can’t outshine the luminous Lively, though. Adaline is a complex role that poses several challenges: Lively is a 27-year-old actor playing a centenarian who’s playing a 29-year-old; she has to speak with a faint pre-war accent (she nails it); and she has to be the authority figure in scenes with Ellen Burstyn, an actor 55 years her elder, who plays her daughter. The blossoming actress pulls it all off effortlessly, and she looks like a zillion bucks doing it.
Screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz’s dialogue is hit and miss (their talent is more evident in their broad narrative strokes), but Lively makes the words sing with her controlled, gentle delivery. She also looks jaw-dropping in the period outfits draped on her by costume designer Angus Strathie, but that’s just the (ridiculously expensive) icing on the cake. The best compliment I can give the Gossip Girl actress is that I’m genuinely excited to see what she does next.
The story takes place in modern-day San Francisco, but Krieger’s version of the city is one that mercifully ignores the tech boom that currently threatens to sand down the city’s odd, beloved idiosyncrasies. He and cinematographer David Lanzenberg instead accentuate the city’s eerie side, setting Adaline and Ellis’ courting encounters in forgotten underground tunnels, shadowy abandoned warehouses and old hotels. The foggy City by the Bay is a fitting setting for a story so hauntingly romantic.