The Age of Adaline is not as smart of a film as it thinks it is. It clearly has a desire to be the next Benjamin Button, spinning a love story with magical undertones and scenes across time, but it doesn’t have any source material or thematic complexity to back it up. This is a film that seeks to be classically literary without having any sort of literary pedigree to its plotting or theming, and it that respect, it is a failure. However, setting aside the film’s obviously lofty ambitions, does it succeed as a film in and of itself? I think the answer is yes.
Adaline (Black Lively), as the film’s seemingly out-of-place storybook narrator will exposit, was born in 1908, and due to a freak accident at the age of 29, her aging process halted, preserving her physical appearance and health. Cut to the present day, and Adaline has been living under false names every new decade to avoid detection. She meets a young man named Ellis (Michiel Huisman) and the two begin a courtship that Adaline most assuredly thinks will end in tragedy, as she fears that she must soon move on and leave him behind.
For all the film’s pretentions towards telling a love story across time, structurally this is just another film about a woman insecure about pursuing a relationship who is ultimately seduced by the love of her life into opening up. It’s a formula that has been used time and again, and The Age of Adaline seems intent on pretending that its effective use of that formula is grander in scope than it actually is. However, the halted-aging contrivance doesn’t have any sort of direct effect on Ellis and Adaline’s relationship; it’s only an obvious secret that she keeps from Ellis, and one that, predictably, won’t matter by the end credits.
But as with any formula piece, the deciding factor is in the efficacy of the performances, and Adaline has some damn fine examples. Blake Lively turns in an incredibly believable performance as an old woman in a young woman’s body, playing Adaline with a calm serenity that hints at experience well beyond her apparent years. She’s still fallibly human and not at all curmudgeony as those suffering from the effects of old age can be, but there’s a certain air of authority and knowledge that makes her seem almost otherworldly, but only almost. Also turning in his best work in years is Harrison Ford as a former lover who meets Adaline by pure happenstance. Ford has never been a superb actor, but the level of nostalgia and longing in his voice as he remembers the Adaline of his youth makes me suspect that Ford may have been channeling emotions from his own life in order to make this role work for him. And work it does.
Ultimately, The Age of Adaline won’t be the staple of anyone’s romantic movie collection, nor will it likely be remembered or appreciated for what it did right. Though its aspirations were lofty, it certainly doesn’t deserve to be remembered as one of the greats. However, as a romance film, it serves its purpose and is surprisingly lacking in the gross misogyny that is typical to the genre. If you’re looking for a sweet film to fill an afternoon, you could do worse than The Age of Adaline.