It’s lightning. The question of why Blake Lively’s titular character in The Age of Adaline hasn’t aged since the 1920s, which has surely been asked aloud by many commuters looking at its vague one-sheet, is that she gets hit by lightning. Unsurprisingly for a studio picture, it’s something that its screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz feel the need to address head-on, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with the goofy Computer Wore Tennis Shoes solution they’ve landed on, nor the magical realism and romance tropes that follow. There’s room in any cinematic canon for light and disposable things, and if this reviewer is going to give a pass to the masculine indulgences of Black Sea, than it would be churlish to come down on this for doing an overtly feminine equivalent.
For a premise that has budding screenwriters’ tongues wagging, there’s relatively little pomp and circumstance in Lee Toland Krieger’s direction. Bookend space shots of planet Earth are as highfalutin as he gets, and even when he nabs Hugh Ross to reprise his omniscient narration from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it’s used less to bring granular asides of historical fiction to life than to use them as a cushion the plot’s sillier aspects. This is particularly true with the aforementioned lightning strike, included as part of a sweeping origin story that’s jazzed up by Krieger and DOP David Lanzenberg with sepia hues, super slow-mo and choral strains right out of a Tim Burton film. Further flashbacks are kept to a minimum, so Krieger’s producers are clearly more keen on modern magical-realist romance than Benjamin Button-esque period stylings,1 though they do fine with both.
It isn’t until the present day that the story swings into full gear – here we find Adaline renting an apartment in San Francisco’s Chinatown; the latest of several identity changes undertaken to elude those who would ask questions about her.2 A few sub-plots are tapped off early to explore the premise: moments of reflection while working in a library archive, lunch dates with her now-elderly daughter (Ellen Burstyn) and a New Year’s party with a blind, older girlfriend (Lynda Boyd) who marvels at how young Adaline’s potential suitors sound. Lively does well to credibly play the character in all of these instances. She doesn’t just have the ethereal primness of a wartime maiden, but there is a sense of melancholy in knowing that everything around her is fleeting, even when she shows a warm love towards her few friends.3 It’s commendable work that carries on even as those subplots are pushed to the fringes in favor of the main event: the arrival of Ellis Jones, played by Michiel Huisman. Flirting and bonding over historical artifacts rapidly gives way to talk of love and commitment, and soon he’s taking her to his parents’ country estate, where a key plot turn comes around to test our suspension of disbelief once and for all. Yet again, Krieger shows nous in smoothing over the zanier aspects of this, letting the cast’s dynamics win out in scenes as simple as a Trivial Pursuit game. You don’t get a decent performance out of Harrison Ford (playing Ellis’ father William) for nothing.
Let’s be clear though: this only amounts to a knowing approach towards shameless heart-tugging material. Its transgressions are, as per many Hollywood romances, the result of staid gender politics. It’s still a film where the resident hunk can stalk and chide his desired woman the way no self-respecting person ever would, even in fantasy, and Goodloe and Paskowitz only drive it home by having him make grand gestures with his inexplicable wealth with the expectation of reward through intimacy, like a non-sadomasochistic Mr Grey. They continue the retrograde streak elsewhere, asking Lively to speak lines containing the kind of superhuman intuition and dopey wit that rivals network-TV detectives, and when it comes time to give the character an arc, it’s rendered unconvincing by the quickness of the plot that has come before it. It hinges on a parallel between her physical and emotional state, but it’s hard to fully believe that those events are what would stop Adaline in her tracks, so accepting it becomes another one of the concessions made to meet the film partway.
At various points since the film’s initial announcement in 2010, the project veered down routes that didn’t make such requests of its audience. The Age of Adaline has had various cast and crew join and leave the project since then, with the likes of both Andy Tennant and Isabel Coixet previously set to direct, with Katherine Heigl and Natalie Portman both in talks to play our lead at separate points. The end product is somewhere in the middle of what those hirings would suggest. It’s not so layered as to be cerebral, not so rank as to be negligible and pleasant enough to not be ill-advised.
Around the Staff: