Every bit the unashamed tearjerker fans of the popular novel expect, “The Notebook” is a determined and often affecting romance that doesn’t speak down to audiences. Mixture of classical Hollywood textures and emotional rawness from a gifted cast is deftly balanced by helmer Nick Cassavetes, while Jeremy Leven’s script (with “adaptation” credit to “Shine” scripter Jan Sardi) is no slave to Nicholas Sparks’ tome even as it blatantly plucks the heartstrings. Guaranteed fan base, driven by women, will come for seconds, and wide age appeal should provide sustained early summer returns.
Sparks’ debut novel set the themes now long familiar to his followers: Tales of true love interrupted by outside forces, with hope for later renewal. New pic far outstrips the previous Sparks adaptations “Message in a Bottle” and “A Walk to Remember,” and took the longest (seven years) to get to the screen. Protracted development, with multiple directors (Steven Spielberg, Jim Sheridan, Martin Campbell) coming and going, hinted at a troubled project, but film plays smoothly.
Postcard-like opening images ease into the gentle interaction between two retirement home residents — Duke (James Garner), who readsaloud from a notebook/diary that chronicles a long-term love, and Allie Calhoun (Gena Rowlands), who tries to listen as her mind drifts in and out of dementia. As the notebook’s saga takes over,the film takes a fairly chronological path — more so than the book.
Instantly smitten when he first sees her at a North Carolina fair, Noah (Ryan Gosling)hangs from a Ferris wheel to get Allie (Rachel McAdams) to go on a date with him. Though a certain deliberate cuteness makes the couple’s emotional connection feel facile at first, Cassavetes (perhaps inspired by his father John’s improvisational predilections) encourages his extremely talented and attractive young actors to let their hair down for natural exchanges that push through the pent-up conventions of Hollywood period drama.
Summer romance that blossoms between working-class Noah and prep school gal Allie is charming enough, but it’s their fights — and breakup after her wealthySouthern parents Anne and John (Joan Allen, David Thornton) forbid their frolics — that dramatize how deeply these two feel for each other.
Midsection’s notable dip is probably unavoidable, as Duke’s narration takes over (though Garner’s voice is always inviting) to describe morose Noah’s life as a World War II soldier. He sees best buddy Fin (Kevin Connolly) die during the (briefly seen) Battle of the Bulge before returning home to dad Frank (Sam Shepard) — with whom he shares a good relationship and a love of Walt Whitman — to restore a long-dormant mansion as their home. Allie’s life takes a turn when Lon (James Marsden), a wounded soldier she nurses during the war, recovers (a bit too amazingly) to become her dashing, ambitious fiance.
Just as the former lovers’ lives appear settled, events grow more interesting as Allie — having seen a news item about Noah’s restoration of the mansion — ventures to see him one last time before her marriage.
Passage, placed in its proper time frame rather than at the beginning as in the novel, now has greater resonance, with revelations about Noah’s hundreds of letters to Allie — and why her mother Anne kept Allie from reading them.
None of this, nor a final and touching present-day sequence as Duke seems to have triggered Allie’s memories and beat back her dementia if only for a few minutes, will surprise those who can read between the lines. But Garner and Rowlands are allowed the last word, and enact a Liebestod that plays like a force of nature.
Already one of the most intriguing young thesps, Gosling extends his range to pure romance without sacrificing a bit of his naturally subversive qualities, and even seems comfortable looking beautiful in a manly American way. The head-turner is McAdams, doing such a different perf from her top bitch in “Mean Girls” that it’s hard to tell it’s the same actor. She skillfully carries much of the film’s emotional weight with a free and easy manner. Marsden exudes charm, complicating Allie’s options. Allen, as always, finds surprising dramatic depths.
Production has second-unit credits devoted to “beauty” and “waterfowl.” Lenser Robert Fraisse lusciously captures both of these elements along with the characters, while Sarah Knowles’ sets and Karyn Wagner’s costumes are classy and class-conscious.