Someone once said that the secret to life is learning to celebrate the passing of time instead of mourning it.
By Noah Gittel
Someone once said that the secret to life is learning to celebrate the passing of time instead of mourning it. It’s a hard lesson to learn in our youth-obsessed culture, but “The Age of Adaline,” a miraculous new melodrama by director Lee Toland Krieger, understands it well. The story of a beautiful young woman (Blake Lively) blessed and cursed with eternal youth sounds at first like an opportunity for Hollywood navel-gazing; after all, this is a town whose citizens routinely reverse the aging process through artificial means. But the film approaches its subject with wisdom and sensitivity. “The Age of Adaline” is a thoughtful story of love and loss, with a character that cannot age to explore the pain of those who do.
Be patient, because “Adaline” suffers some missteps right out of the gate. The backstory is told, unfortunately, through a prosaic voice-over narration. Her husband died in a construction accident not long after the birth of their daughter. Days later, Adaline suffers her own fateful accident, during which she is struck by lightning and the aging process is halted (don’t ask).
The first few years are a breeze, but once she and her daughter start to get mistaken for sisters, the authorities show up at her door, threatening a lifetime of government-funded tests. Adaline escapes and cultivates a new lifestyle to help her survive: She moves every ten years, creates new identities with falsified documents, and very carefully plans annual visits with her daughter (Ellen Burstyn), who quickly eclipses her in age.
These early scenes of exposition are clumsily handled, but the presence of Lively makes them tolerable. Lively is not a transformative actress, but she exudes an old-world elegance and makes some good choices. She opts for subtlety over grandeur, underplaying the role to express Adaline’s reluctance to share her inner life with others. It might be a case of better casting than acting, but it works.
Adaline’s life requires no romantic entanglements, but she breaks her rule when she meets Ellis (Michiel Huisman) at a New Year’s Eve party. In the presence of Adaline’s beauty and quiet confidence, Ellis is a jumble of nerves, but she falls for him anyway and reluctantly agrees to meet his parents. When her eyes click on his father William (Harrison Ford), there is a moment of instant recognition, and Adaline spends the rest of the film hoping he will not discover who she is and remember what they once shared, when he was a young man and Adaline was, of course, the same.
As solid as Lively is in the first half, the film clicks into a higher gear when Ford shows up. It’s been so long since he was given a substantive dramatic part to tackle that it is easy to take his talent for granted. William is a meaty role: On the eve of his fortieth wedding anniversary, he meets a woman he believes to be his lost love, but it’s a heartbreaking trap. Is she Adaline, and how could that be? If so, what does he do about it? In what is easily his best performance since “The Fugitive,” Ford channels a half-century of pain and regret, while experiencing them all over again.
Beyond the strong performances and its valuable message, what really makes “The Age of Adaline” soar is how it matches its form to its function. It’s a celebration of aging, but it also feels like it belongs in a forgotten cinematic era, with its lush, golden cinematography, earnest melodrama, and quiet aesthetic elegance. It all adds up to the most powerful meditation on love and loss than Hollywood has produced in this era. If the key to life is to celebrate the passage of time, “The Age of Adaline” is wise beyond its years.
My Rating: See it in the Theater