No genre receives less respect in the 21st century than romance. Even the once maligned horror gets more critical acclaim. And woe unto the film that eschews the comedy and dares to simply be a sentimental drama. Writer Nicholas Sparks has had box office success in this area with adaptations of his novels like Dear John and Safe Haven. But those treacly tearjerkers prove my point. Audiences may flock to them but critics hate them. Occasionally an exception will attempt a more elevated take. The Theory of Everything is a good example. The Stephen Hawking biopic was a bona fide romance that actually received some recognition. But even that had a vociferous minority of detractors. Heck Best Picture winner Titanic is often unjustly maligned now. It wasn’t always this way. Roman Holiday (1953) and An Affair to Remember (1957) are great examples of unabashed emotion. Critics still adore those films. Perhaps the idea of an earnest love story almost seems regressive in our current era. Tenderness must be presented with sarcasm or artifice for it to be believable apparently. Into this climate comes The Age of Adaline. This heartfelt romance is a real throwback. It won’t get respect, but it should.
Lee Toland Krieger directs a cheerfully old fashioned tale that hearkens back to love stories of pre-1965 cinema. It stars a stunning Blake Lively as a perpetually 29 year old woman. She was born on New Year’s Day 1908. She originally had a normal life. She fell in love, got married, had a child. She became a widow when her husband suffered a tragedy during the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. Then one night a snowfall in Sonoma County leads to a freak accident that causes her to stop aging. A talkative narrator explains how it scientifically happened with hypothermia and lightning. Yes it’s absurd. But if you openly accept the powers of every Marvel superhero and you can’t even wrap your head around this little conceit, then you are clearly a walking contradiction.
One would think staying forever young would be a blessing. However Adaline is apprehended by the FBI so they can study her abnormality. So she decides to escape. Every ten years she creates a new identity and a new life. This goes on for eight decades to our modern day. Only her aging daughter (Ellen Burstyn) knows her secret. This gives the production an excuse to outfit our heroine in a variety of hairstyles and costume changes to reflect the times. This is a gorgeous looking film. Let’s just say chief hair stylist Anne Carroll, head of makeup Monica Huppert and costume designer Angus Strathie are major assets. Ditto composer Rob Simonsen whose luscious score further gives the atmosphere an exquisite sophistication. Adaline doesn’t physically age although her fashion most assuredly does.
All the style of this fantasy wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t care about the characters. In order to be captivated by a romance, we too must fall in love with the people. Blake Lively is a vision. Her film choices have been spotty (Green Lantern, Savages) but she negates any lingering doubts in her acting ability here. The script allows her to casually deliver some very witty one-liners that poke fun at the way she transcends time. There is a subtle aristocratic air about her that appropriates the refinement of say a Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps I go too far, but it’s a quality I rarely see in modern movies so I’ll stand by the comparison. Her beau is Ellis (Charlie Huisman) to whom she introduces herself as Jenny on New Year’s Eve 2014. With his beard and ‘stache he looks kind of like a mid-70s era Kris Kristofferson. Huisman has undeniable chemistry with Lively. He pursues her with the single-minded passion of a man in love. They’re appealing together but the saga’s greatest moment is the late in the narrative introduction of Harrison Ford in a small but pivotal role. His emotionally powerful performance carefully straddles the line between contentment and regret. Ford gives his greatest performance of the last two decades in film and one of the best of his entire career. The Age of Adaline is such a delicate little unsung movie, I almost passed it over. I only hope other people are willing to give it a chance.