Elegant, messy, indecisive, gorgeous 'Age of Adaline' has its star-power void offset by Harrison Ford's astonishing supporting turn
The Age of Adaline Lionsgate
Director: Lee Toland Krieger
Screenplay: J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz
Starring: Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker and Amanda Crew
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 52 minutes
April 24, 2015
(out of four)
The Age of Adaline runs on a perpetual cycle of one step forward, one step back. It is engrossing yet frustrating because it's such a conflicted balance of good decisions and bad ones.
And that's not even a binary problem, exactly; a particular element will work marvelously (Hugh Ross' narration, for example) until that one moment when it's deployed catastrophically. A performance will seem pretty good ... until it goes up directly against one that casts a glaring light on its limitations. The right story decision will be executed in exactly the wrong way. A fascinating piece of historical context will be introduced, only to be subsequently ignored. This is a movie that I liked sometimes in spite of itself; its strengths are so good that I was more willing to forgive its mistakes than I may have been otherwise.
The nature of the film puts it in the company of similarly fantastical, paradoxical time- and age-centric premises like Orlando, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Picture of Dorian Gray, not to mention countless time-travel and vampire films. The ageless wonder in this case is Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively), a young woman and mother in the 1930s who gets caught up in a rare confluence of circumstances - a rare snowfall, a car careening off the road into an icy pond, a sudden bolt of lightning - that makes her age permanent from that moment onward. (The voiceover informs us there is a scientific basis for this anomaly, but that it won't be discovered until 2035.)
Flashbacks can be tricky, but director Lee Toland Krieger and writers J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz smartly begin their story in the present, as we see Adaline in modern-day San Francisco adopting a new identity, with Ross' lovely narration explaining that she does this every decade or so, and why. We're taken back to Adaline's life in the early part of the 20th century - her wedding, her daughter's birth, her husband's death, the twist of fate on that slippery road that nearly killed her and wound up immortalizing her instead.
As the years pass she comes to terms with the fact that she has to remain as anonymous as possible, lest she become a Zelig-like nationwide curiosity. Adaline Bowman: The Woman Who Never Ages! Step right up! This means no long-term friends or lovers, no permanent residences, no lifelong careers. Each decade a new place, a new job, a new life. Only her daughter Flemming (played in present day by Ellen Burstyn, nearly three times Adaline's age) knows her secret.
And here is where I start to wonder what the development process for this movie was - how the idea was initially conceived, how it changed during the process, what may have been removed or edited down. The film places Adaline into the crosshairs of the Red Scare, as she's picked up by FBI agents suspicious about the discrepancy between her looks and her listed age before managing to escape them, deciding from then on that she must continue to change her name and whereabouts every so often. And then ... that's the last we hear about Communism, or the 1950s, or her non-romantic past in general. But why introduce such a potentially fertile element and use it as nothing more than a plot mover? Aforementioned films like Orlando and Button placed their age-defying characters within historical contexts (especially the former, Sally Potter's great 1992 Woolf adaptation); The Age of Adaline, meanwhile, makes brief mentions of the two World Wars, randomly drops in the McCarthyism angle ... and otherwise seems to care little about the eras through which its title character has lived.
To clarify: There is no wrong answer here, no wrong approach. Not focusing on a century's worth of changing times is not a flaw, it's a decision - but the movie doesn't seem altogether confident in that decision. At times it seems to be leaning in the direction of historical context, but keeps pulling back.
That speaks to the film's unevenness as a whole. Krieger seems to be so indecisive about Adaline's role in her own timeline, while in other areas his filmmaking is so confident. In the end, the lack of bother with the various eras she experiences might be to Age's benefit. From his classical staging to the overall design of his production, Krieger seems to be going for a sense of timelessness. Fashions change, but not so much that it looks like the cast is putting on a series of era-specific fashion shows. They blend together to an extent, past and present coexisting for us just as they do for Adaline herself. There's a certain consistency to the warmth of Krieger's color palette, so that even modern scenes - say, the New Year's Eve party in the San Francisco high-rise where we meet our primary love interest - take on the feel of a vintage photograph. The fact that cinematographer David Lanzenberg (The Signal) makes such great use of rich browns and golds (among other muted colors) has a lot to do with that.
For Adaline, with that timelessness comes loneliness and isolation - much of it self-imposed - that she carries with a quiet dignity. When she locks eyes from across a crowded room with Ellis (Michiel Huisman), and when he follows her into the elevator and down to the lobby and out into the city, she is steadfast in her insistence that she's moving away soon, and just can't be swept off her feet right now, thank you very much.
Inevitably, this Ellis will become a great love of her life, and even more inevitably, as that love grows a complication from her past will arise unexpectedly. (The movie didn't give her all those years for nothin'.) And here comes the film's pivotal contrast, which both elevates it to its greatest heights and yet undermines its most important figure. Halfway through the film we are introduced to her long-ago lover from the late 1960s, William Jones, played by Harrison Ford. I cannot emphasize enough how great Ford's performance is here. I don't remember the last time I've seen him express so much with his face, and with the small inflections of his voice. William - happily married for several decades - is instantly transfixed by the sight of Adaline, transported to the brief weeks they spent together so many years ago. Watching Ford, as William, as he tries to keep his emotional composure - even as she tries to explain that, oh yes, Adaline was my mother, etc, etc. - is transfixing in itself. The hitches in his speech as he tries to play it cool, the heartbreak in his eyes, the almost out-of-body sense of nostalgic bewilderment ... it is beautiful, and it is the best thing Ford has done in two decades.
It is also, and here's the crucial point, a performance whose power emanates from movie-star gravitas. And in these moments we not only remember that few people have Ford's screen presence, but that Blake Lively certainly does not. And so it dawns on us. Now, I want to be fair here: I actually think Lively is a pretty good actress, and doesn't yet get enough credit for being so. She was impressive in a thankless role in The Town, and she certainly outclassed Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Savages. I even like her performance in Adaline. But here, especially when we get around to the great, lost romance that is the story's emotional core, something is unmistakably missing. The whole film is built around the enigmatic qualities of the title character - it either needed a Movie Star, or someone with the presence and inimitable spark of a future Movie Star. It needed that something that can make a character feel almost instantly iconic.
Realizing that the lead character didn't quite have the goods to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Harrison Ford, I began to wonder who else it could have been - who had that certain quality. I read that the role was once offered to Katherine Heigl, and nope, absolutely not. But Natalie Portman, who was also once tipped for the part? Yeah, she's got it. Rachel McAdams? Yep. Scarlett Johansson? Without a doubt. More outside the box? Perhaps an actor with the uniqueness and volatility of Amanda Seyfried or Eva Green. Or the immaculate beauty and strength of Marion Cotillard or Zoe Saldana. Or just imagine this as the breakout lead role for Margot Robbie or Elizabeth Olsen. These are the best examples I thought of because I know every one of them can carry a movie, and command the screen with nothing but a look. Lively has the tools but she simply doesn't pop off the screen. And when Harrison Ford - or Burstyn, for that matter - shows up, Lively practically disappears.
Finally, there is the final, behind-the-scenes performance, and that is Hugh Ross as the film's omniscient narrator. Now, I admit that hearing Ross - who so extraordinarily provided the narration to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - doing voiceover sparks a Pavlovian response in me. I admit this, and I accept it. I instantly took a liking to the film when I heard his voice, matter-of-factly explaining the facts of the curious case of Adaline Bowman. He's used only periodically, but he's used well.
That is, he's used well until the ending, which doesn't really work on any level, but is diminished even further by the narration's too-easy explanation of it (in what is already a too-easy storytelling decision). The film wants to have its cake and eat it, too, and in the end takes the easy way out. It's a shame, but I can't let it deter my enthusiasm for the parts about The Age of Adaline that really shine. This is a film whose lovingly crafted, old-fashioned aesthetic stands out among its 21st Century peers; and it is a film I'll remember for practically resurrecting Harrison Ford, and reminding us what a powerful presence he can be. For those reasons alone, I'll take it.