Magic realism is characterized by fantastical elements incorporated into an otherwise realistic world. Depicting it in films is a tricky thing. These films often require you to take a leap of faith and trust that the filmmaker knows what they’re doing. They are often immersed in romantic, sometimes nostalgic notions – think Midnight in Paris (2011) where the protagonist finds himself in 1920s Paris every day at midnight, hobnobbing with legendary artists. Filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro are masters of this kind of storytelling, but if it’s not done right you’ve got something akin to the ponderous bore that is The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000). Get it right and you’ve got a classic like Field of Dreams (1989).
In recent years, a little-seen film called The Age of Adaline (2015) was an excellent example of magic realism in the form of immortality of its eponymous character and how it is both a blessing and mostly a curse for them. It was a modest box office hit and received mixed reviews but Blake Lively’s engaging performance and the romance at the heart of the story really resonated and stayed with me.
In 1937, Adaline Bowman (Lively) is involved in a freak car accident that makes her immortal, stuck at 29 years old. She leads as normal a life as she can, raising her daughter and moving around, assuming fake identities in order to elude attention. It understandably puts a strain on their relationship as she watches her child grow old while she remains the same.
Adaline is very careful, changing her identity every decade and not letting anyone get too close to her until one swanky New Year’s Eve party where she meets Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman). Initially, it is nothing more than a lingering look across a packed ballroom only for them to meet in the elevator where they engage in some clever light banter (“I just wanted to spend 27 floors with you,” he tells her in the lobby.). She’s amused by his playful persistence while he’s intrigued by her undeniable beauty and intelligence, but she skillfully dodges his flirtations. After all, she’s been doing it longer than he’s been alive.
As fate would have it, Adaline and Ellis’ paths cross again when he donates a collection of expensive first edition books to the archives of the library where she works. He even brings her “some flowers” – Daisy Miller, Dandelion Wine, and White Oleander, which is an amusingly clever gesture. He wears down her resolve and she agrees to go out on a date with him. The rest of the film plays out Adaline’s dilemma – does she tell this man she is falling in love with her secret – with a significant plot twist halfway through that puts their budding relationship in jeopardy.
Blake Lively effortlessly conveys the wise-beyond-her-years Adaline without overstating it. The actress has a natural grace and beauty that is stunning to watch but she infuses her character with a subtle, haunted quality of someone that has lived many lifetimes and is something of a lonely figure unable to let anyone get too close as she will be unable to explain why she doesn’t age without sounding like a crazy person. Lively plays someone who is immortal but doesn’t opt for the alien-like otherness that some actors are tempted to go for with these kinds of roles, instead playing a fully-realized character that is warm but guarded.
The meet-cut scenes between Adaline and Ellis are well handled by director Lee Toland Krieger and well written by screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz with Michiel Huisman excelling as the charming Ellis who meets his match with the enigmatic Adaline. He’s good-looking, witty and a sincere idealist, whom she finds quite an appealing package. It’s not hard to understand why the usually cautious Adaline begins to fall in love with Ellis. Huisman plays him as a warm-hearted romantic that matches her love of history and literature. He also shows an excellent capacity for light comedy, injecting a given scene with a witty line delivery or an amusing reaction to something someone else says or does.
I like how their relationship develops gradually. They don’t sleep together on the first date. They actually take the time and get to know each other – well, she gets to know him as he talks about his family. There’s a delicious warmth to these scenes as we root for these two intriguing characters to make it work. For a film like this to work the two lead characters have to be perfectly cast and have chemistry together. Fortunately, The Age of Adaline succeeds on both of these counts.
The real surprise of this film is Harrison Ford popping up in a significant supporting role. For years, he’s been phoning in performances and looking uninterested unless he was playing Indiana Jones or Han Solo. He plays Ellis’ father and it is a juicy part that allows him to really sink his teeth into it. He does, delivering a wonderfully layered, heartfelt performance. Ever the gracious actor, he plays well off the rest of the cast, especially Lively because of the unique connection between their characters.
This is particularly evident in an engaging scene where Ellis takes Adaline up to his family’s house for the weekend and one night they play Trivial Pursuit. The interplay between Ford, Kathy Baker, who plays his wife, Amanda Crew, who plays his daughter, and Huisman is well done and believable, right down to the in-jokes and playful needling between them. It is scenes like this that ground the film and make us care about what happens to the characters.
I like that The Age of Adaline addresses the problematic effects of immortality in a scene between Adaline and her now old daughter (Ellen Burstyn) who says that she’s thinking of moving to a retirement community in Arizona much to her mother’s chagrin. Both actresses play this scene quite well as the mother/daughter friction plays out between two people that, visually, look like they should swap roles.
The Age of Adaline is a nuanced, romantic story fused with the notion of immortality in a way that feels genuine and not some gimmick devised to separate it from other films of its ilk, avoiding the usual romantic clichés in a way that feels fresh. Krieger does this in a way that doesn’t insult your intelligence while enveloping it in an austere look and framing reminiscent of David Fincher but with a lot more warmth and this draws you into the cinematic world he has created. It is saddled with too much voiceover narration that, at times, is clumsily written, but it exists to further enhance the fairy tale vibe of the film. Less is more should’ve been the directive in that department. That being said, The Age of Adaline was a small film that sadly flew under a lot of people’s radar. It stayed with me as its characters and story resonated in a way that was pleasantly surprising. It stayed with me for days and that rarely happens. That’s when you know a film has worked its magic on you.