Filming a romantic fantasy is like skipping a rope on a high wire: it’s not easy to do and most who try it fail, but when it works it’s impressive. An example of a failure in the genre, last year Winter’s Tale managed only a 13% rating from Rotten Tomatoes. The good news is that the new release The Age of Adaline pulls off the balancing act, despite a couple of wobbles.
We’re introduced to Adaline (Blake Lively) on New Year’s Eve 2014 as she takes a cab from San Francisco to Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge. An omnipresent narrator intones that it’s this day will be the last day of her past life, and the first day of her new one, which sounds pompous until we discover she’s buying a new identity from a teenage forger. Adaline demonstrates a Sherlock Holmesian gift for observation that makes the forger fear she’s with the police, but she explains she’s just using her experience to help him.
She returns to San Francisco and her job at a historical preservation society. While cataloguing newsreel footage of the 1906 earthquake, Adaline drifts back through moments in her life starting with her birth, the first baby born on New Year’s Day in San Francisco in the year of the quake. Her husband was an engineer who helped build the Golden Gate Bridge until an accident claimed his life and left Adaline a widowed young mother. Then, when she was 29, a freak accident freezes the aging process in her body. (The narrator intones a pseudo-scientific explanation, which is one of the wobbles.) As her daughter grows to college-age in the 1950s, Adaline remains the same. When she comes to the attention of the authorities during the days of Red Scare paranoia, Adaline goes into hiding, regularly changing her identity.
At a New Year’s Eve party that night, Adaline meets Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), and even from across the room there’s an immediate attraction. But then it appears he’s with someone, so Adaline walks away. Ellis follows her as she leaves the party and tries to get her number – he felt the attraction as well – but she refuses to give it and leaves. The next day she meets her daughter Flemming (Ellen Burstyn) for a birthday lunch. Adaline mentions Ellis, but she dismisses the idea of romance and love; there’s no future in it if they can’t grow old together. Flemming knows how much her mother has sacrificed in her long life and hopes she’ll have a chance to be happy. Then the fates conspire to bring Ellis back into Adaline’s life.
The film has an unusual combination for its creative team. Director Lee Toland Krieger has mostly worked with independent films, following in the footsteps of his mentor Neil LaBute. The original story and screenplay were written by Salvator Paskowitz and J Mills Goodloe, neither of which who were known for this type of film. But the trifecta of producers – Sidney Kimmel, Gary Lucchesi, and Tom Rosenburg – have together or on their own produced some excellent films, such as Million Dollar Baby, Moneyball, and The Lincoln Lawyer. Paskowitz and Goodloe manage to juggle the plot so all the aspects of it stay airborne, while Krieger gives the film a bit of an edge that serves it well. Cinematographer David Lanzenberg captures San Francisco beautifully on the screen. With its blend of old and new, it’s the perfect setting for this story. The score by Rob Simonsen is exceptional, both in its romantic themes as well as the wise use of period music to match the ages of Adaline shown on the screen.
But it would have been a wasted effort without an actress who can project an old soul within a youthful body. Blake Lively is known mostly for the TV series “Gossip Girl” and as the spouse of Ryan Reynolds, with who she starred in the unsuccessful superhero movie The Green Lantern. She gave a surprisingly effective performance in Ben Affleck’s caper movie The Town as an addicted young mother. Here, though, she steps to the center of the stage and casts a spell as Adaline with a gracious and nuanced performance. The camera captures each subtle reaction or flash of memory that whispers across Lively’s face.
She’s assisted by a strong supporting cast. Dutch actor Michiel Huisman has become a major presence on TV recently, with roles in Game of Thrones, Orphan Black, Nashville and Treme, as well as in the movies Wild and World War Z. He’s handsome enough you don’t question Adaline’s attraction, though he also projects a depth that allows the relationship to grow into love. Along with the previously mentioned Ellen Burstyn, the movie also stars Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker as Ellis’ parents.
If you are a romantic, I suggest you bring a supply of tissues with you when you view this film. If you’re not a romantic, bring along someone who is so that you can experience the emotional power of the story.