"The Age of Adaline," starring a grown-up "Gossip Girl" Blake Lively and Michiel Huisman, one of "Game of Thrones'" resident heartthrobs, is a sweeping romance beautifully wrapped in classy couture and slightly suspect in the way it uses metaphysics to manipulate matters of the heart.
Not "An Affair to Remember," mind you, but a welcome change from the Nicholas Sparks brand of mush that has overtaken the hearts-and-flowers corner of movieland.
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger with an eye to making the most of Lively's refined beauty, the script concocted by screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz is a bizarre blend of smart, stupid and self-aware. Which means it doesn't use its fine cast enough or misuse them too badly. There are especially affecting turns by Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker as a long-married couple shaken by strange coincidences.
Strange coincidences are in fact the hallmark of this film. It begins in San Francisco with a thoroughly modern Adaline Bowman (Lively) picking up her new identity papers including a new name, Jennifer Lawson. It's all very hush-hush, with the sense that "Casablanca"-esque intrigues might be in the offing. There's something very 1940s about Adaline's look, cinched trench coat, cloche hat. And you really can't say enough about the look.
In "Adaline," clothes do much to make the movie. Costume designer Angus Strathie, who shared an Oscar for his work on "Moulin Rouge," does an exceptional job of creating a wardrobe for Lively that moves seamlessly and exquisitely across more than 100 years of changing styles while remaining distinctly Adaline's. Chief hair stylist Anne Carroll and head of makeup Monica Huppert are flawless as well.
Not long after Adaline's brief encounter with the young document forger, there's a flashback to 1906, where the story really begins. This is when her charmed life starts unraveling. The back story is mostly transmitted through picture postcard imagery, her handsome engineer husband's untimely death, the grief-stricken young widow skidding off the road in a freak snowstorm. Which requires another detour to mention the gently aged sensibility caught like lightning in a bottle by cinematographer David Lanzenberg and production designer Claude Pare. Rob Simonsen's lyrical music accompanies all this beauty.
Now for the lightning. The car is soon submerged in frigid waters, Adaline's heart stops, but a bolt of lightning straight to the heart revives her. And the very same special jolt that restarts her heart stops her aging. Before there is time to contemplate this nonsense, a rather wry and whimsical narrator (Hugh Ross) explains that the discovery of this particular phenomenon is still to come — i.e., if we don't understand it's because science isn't quite there yet.
Like the script's guardian angel, Ross' very chummy voice resurfaces throughout the film to ease us past other unexplainable events. As a contrivance to cover up plot issues, it serves.
What soon becomes clear is that aging is as much the issue that "Adaline" turns on as love. It's an interesting idea to use romantic attraction as the way to examine the downsides of eternal youth. Love for Adaline gets complicated quickly since the "growing old together" is impossible. With a few exceptions, she simply avoids it.
In contrast, Adaline's relationship with her naturally aging daughter comes easily. We spend the most time with Flemming as a 70-year-old played by Ellen Burstyn (Izabel Pearce plays her at 5, Cate Richardson at 20). Burstyn and Lively do a good job of making their exchanges feel like the typical back and forth between mother and daughter, despite the disconcerting visual dissonance.
While we expect Burstyn to handle dicey situations with ease, Lively is the surprise. The actress makes Adaline's careful way of talking, the slightly stilted phrasing of someone determined not to give away too much, work. And when certain scenes allow Adaline to relax — live and love as it happens — Lively handles the change subtly.
And what about the love story? Before Adaline can take her new identity and run, there is a glam New Year's Eve party, a tradition for the ageless beauty. A chance encounter with a dashing young man changes everything. Ellis Jones (Huisman) is so taken with Jennifer Lawson, he tracks her down, makes an altruistic donation to the library where she works and woos her with excellent early copies of a few literary treasures.
Ellis won't go away, and for once — well, for the second time as it turns out — she thinks about trying the truth. While she decides when to share her secret, there are the kissy montages and a fateful trip to meet Ellis' family. William (Ford) and Kathy (Baker) are his parents, an encounter that comes late in the film but with a delicious twist that sets the stage for Ford to remind us how wonderfully vulnerable and introspective he can be when the role calls for it.
Whether you're smitten by this romantic drama or not, like everything else in "Adaline," even the tears are lovely to look at.
'The Age of Adaline'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for a suggestive comment
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: In general release