Daisy Miller meets Dorian Gray — or perhaps “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” meets Nicholas Sparks — in “The Age of Adaline,” a sensitively directed slab of romantic hokum that wrings an impressive amount of emotional conviction from a thoroughly ludicrous premise. A dab hand at invigorating conventional material with storytelling smarts and strong performances (“Celeste & Jesse Forever,” “The Vicious Kind”), helmer Lee Toland Krieger elicits a moving central turn from Blake Lively as a woman for whom eternal youth turns out to be a decidedly mixed blessing — one that plays out in ways both poignant and preposterous, sometimes simultaneously, over the course of her 100-plus years on Earth. Viewers seeking a pleasant alternative to the early-summer blockbuster barrage could do far worse than this genial high-concept romance, a likely modest theatrical performer for Lionsgate whose commercial stature should only improve with age.
The sort of time-skipping, tear-milking supernatural romance that would seem to have been adapted from some indifferent piece of three-hankie airport fiction, “The Age of Adaline” was in fact written for the screen by J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz, who are shrewd enough to introduce their narrative hook early in the game while still retaining a sly sense of mystery. When we first meet Adaline Bowman (Lively), she’s making her way across present-day San Francisco, carefully procuring a fake driver’s license that identifies her as a 29-year-old named Jennifer Larson. Sweet but guarded, and much sharper and more observant than she appears initially, this woman could be a stealth superhero or an undercover CIA operative, for all we know; certainly neither possibility is ruled out by Lively’s withholding yet strangely compelling reserve.
But as we see her rifle through her possessions (among them an antique typewriter and a collection of sepia-toned photographs), or watch a vintage early-20th-century newsreel, the character’s backstory swiftly comes into focus through a series of flashbacks. Born in 1908, Adaline was an ordinary if remarkably beautiful woman of her era who married a handsome young engineer and gave birth to a daughter, Flemming. But not long after her husband’s untimely death, a grief-stricken Adaline crashed her car into a freezing cold river on an uncharacteristically snowy California night — only to be rescued by a stray bolt of lightning that not only jumpstarted her heart, but also permanently stopped her aging process, rendering her “immune to the ravages of time.”
Those words are spoken by a stately, slightly unctuous narrator (voiced by Hugh Ross), who also notes that the precise thermonuclear law in question will not be discovered until the year 2035, injecting a welcome dose of humor into the proceedings: Clearly, scientific plausibility, let alone accuracy, could not be more beside the point here. Indeed, by acknowledging the silliness of the premise upfront, Krieger grants himself license to dramatize the fallout with a surprising degree of emotional logic, keeping us at Adaline’s side as she realizes that her condition — which begins to arouse suspicion around the time of her 45th birthday — has effectively condemned her to a life of transience and solitude. Unable to share the truth with anyone except Flemming, who soon visibly surpasses her in age (she’s soon played by a typically fine Ellen Burstyn), Adaline moves around and switches identities often, spending most of her private eternity reading and soaking up new languages.
Aware that she and her lover will never grow old together, Adaline largely steers clear of romantic relationships — that is, until a fateful New Year’s Eve party where she meets the dashing Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), who pursues her with such ardent sincerity that she can’t help but reciprocate. No sooner does she choose to pursue her feelings, however, than the film drops the sort of brazen, startling twist that immediately causes her to doubt her decision, even as it prompts the viewer to question the peculiarly sadistic machinations of fate that have brought Adaline to this particular point. Yet despite or perhaps because of this blatant contrivance, which might have stopped a less committed movie dead in its tracks, “The Age of Adaline” somehow becomes an even more weirdly captivating experience, capturing a sort of slow-dawning collective epiphany as all involved struggle to make sense of a truly impossible situation.
Those characters include Ellis’ mother (Kathy Baker) and father (Harrison Ford), who enter the picture relatively late in the game yet add a crucial measure of dramatic heft; Ford, in particular, does some of his finest, most restrained yet passionate acting in quite some time, taking advantage of just a few sharply written scenes to distill the emotional essence of an old man who has known great joy as well as deep regret. Ellis’ father, as it happens, is an astronomer by trade — a fitting enough detail for a movie that, in its most Sparksian moments, frequently directs our gaze heavenward, straining a bit too insistently to lend a cosmic dimension to what we’re seeing. That’s particularly true of the final voiceover, which, together with some rather ill-advised comet imagery and a predictably contrived climax, brings this lovely, gently haunting movie to a more bluntly literal-minded close than it deserves.
Ultimately, “The Age of Adaline” offers a soothing reminder that one of life’s chief frustrations — we never have as much time as we would like — might in fact be one of its truest mercies. The film also serves as a corrective to prevailing standards of beauty, particularly in an industry where actresses are encouraged to smooth away every line and wrinkle. Most of all, though, it’s a vehicle for Lively’s expressive yet underplayed performance, the sort of quietly commanding star turn that makes you wonder why this performer (still best known for “Gossip Girl”) hasn’t received more bigscreen opportunities over the past decade. At her subtlest, Lively sensitizes us to her character’s thoughts as she processes the incomprehension of those around her, nimbly working out the best way to answer everyone’s questions without revealing what’s really going on. For all the deception, however, the truth of Adaline’s feelings is never hidden from the viewer, least of all in one crucial scene where she gazes into a mirror and responds to what she sees with both sorrow and elation.
Brief, judicious flashbacks to the earlier chapters of Adaline’s life are rendered with unfussy professionalism, with Claude Pare’s production design and Angus Strathie’s costumes offering precise, effective visual markers for different eras; for the most part, the movie unfolds resolutely in the present day and the present tense. Still, there’s a dark cast and a vivid cinematic texture to David Lanzenberg’s digital lensing (on the Red camera) that conveys a certain timeless quality, extended almost to a fault by Rob Simonson’s omnipresent score.