The Age of Adaline opens with such a large chunk of exposition that you initially wonder if it's ever going to stop telling and start showing. An unseen narrator (Hugh Ross, who also narrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) informs us that Adaline (Blake Lively, Green Lantern) was born at 12:01 AM on New Year's Eve, 1908, that she led a relatively normal childhood, that she married in her early twenties, that she gave birth to a baby girl, that her husband passed away in a tragic accident and that Adaline herself was in a horrific car crash a few years later at the age of 29. The crash nearly killed Adaline, but instead managed to trigger a weird biological effect that suspended her aging process. In other words, she will remain 29 years old forever. We're told that the reason for this is purely scientific, but that the science required to explain it won't be discovered until the year 2035. Sure, okay.
Still, after the film finishes unspooling the elaborate details of its premise, it reveals itself as a charming, melancholy tale of a woman blessed with a long life and cursed with an inability to really live. Adaline knows that she must keep her condition a secret, so she moves to a different part of the world and changes her identity every decade or so. She generally tries to avoid close friendships or serious romances, knowing that she will eventually have to abandon anyone who grows to care about her. Her only real relationship is with her daughter Flemming, who transforms from a youthful teenager (Cate Richardson) to an elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist) right before Adeline's eyes. They say that every adult turns into a teenager again when they visit their parents, and it's a treat to see the youthful petulance Burstyn brings to her scenes.
Lively's performance is a lovely, understated piece of work that represents a sizable step forward for the actress. It isn't easy to suggest an 107-year-old woman living inside the body of a 29-year-old, but Lively pulls it off. Adaline works valiantly to keep her true nature a secret, but her elegant accent, masterful understanding of 20th century history and wildly diverse skill set occasionally cause those around her to raise their eyebrows. Indeed, her unusual demeanor eventually catches the attention of Ellis Jones (Michael Huisman, Treme), a wealthy young philanthropist who woos Adaline with corny jokes, old books and puppy dog-like attentiveness.
The tentative romance between Adaline and Ellis occupies most of the film's first half, and it's an appreciably sincere (if slightly drippy) portrait of a tender but fragile relationship. Adaline finds herself contemplating whether or not she should break the rules she has set for herself, and that frightens her. The more Ellis charms Adaline, the more emotional defenses she constructs. We sense that Ellis is a man who usually gets what he wants, and Huisman effectively captures the character's genial bemusement. It's all rather heartfelt and somber and sweet, but honestly, it's also a little dull.
Then, around the halfway mark, the film turns into something gripping. Adaline meets Ellis' parents, and is alarmed to discover that his father William (Harrison Ford, The Fugitive) is someone she once romanced decades ago. William is astonished, certain that he's experiencing some sort of hallucinatory mental breakdown. Adaline – who is currently calling herself “Jenny” - hastily claims that the woman William knew was actually her mother. William accepts the explanation, but nonetheless finds himself deeply shaken by the encounter.
I'm rather surprised to find myself saying this, but Ford's work in The Age of Adaline is one of his strongest performances. You hear heartbroken cracks in his low growl of a voice, and his coke bottle glasses do little to hide the anguish in his eyes. I don't think I've ever seen Ford appear quite as vulnerable as he does in this film, and it's both startling and moving to see the raw-nerve intensity he brings to the part. For the first time in a long time, I was reminded of the soulful, complex performances the actor once delivered for director Peter Weir in Witness and The Mosquito Coast.
The only downside is that Ford's work almost completely overwhelms everything that has preceded it. The central romance between Adaline and Ellis is still playing out in the background, but it seems nearly inconsequential in contrast to the profoundly heartbreaking relationship between Adaline and William. Adding further emotional complexity to the matter is the presence of Kathy (Kathy Baker, Cold Mountain), William's loving wife of 40 years. She's hurt by the fact that William still seems to pine for a woman he knew decades ago, and her disappointment isn't lost on him. “I don't like feeling like I'm the second choice,” she tells him.
The film's climax is both bold and a little disappointing, as that magical science employed during the film's opening scene returns to provide another unlikely plot development. I appreciated the melodramatic flourish and thematic neatness of it all, but there's no denying that the closing scenes are pure corn syrup. The Age of Adaline only reaches its full potential during Ford's scenes, but Lee Toland Krieger's unflappably earnest direction is the sort of thing I'd like to see more often. I suspect that we will, because cinematic trends tend to go in cycles. After a glut of movies dedicated to providing clever, snarky remixes of old ideas, sincere may be the new black.
The Age of Adaline
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2015