The Age of Adaline is a time-travel film by any other name. A long, respectably delivered bit of exposition-cum-technobabble near the beginning informs us that for Science Reasons our protagonist (Blake Lively), a woman born in 1904, has not aged since she survived a car accident at 29. As the years pass, her acquaintances become increasingly confused by and suspicious of her fixed appearance. Eventually, during the Red Scare, US government agents attempt to detain and question Adaline. Her eternal youth seems to them like the sort of Soviet weird science that, in another SFnal genre, it would be. (That’s such a Man from U.N.C.L.E. plot.) After this near miss (not to mention the strain of outliving her friends and relations without understanding why), Adaline decides to conceal her identity, to move on at regular intervals and to form no new close attachments. This, of course, cannot withstand filmic logic’s relentless erosion of women’s barriers. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a female character who has decided not to form romantic attachments must be in want of a beau.
A moment ago I said that Adaline didn’t understand her predicament. This is one of the film’s strengths. There’s a smugness to the pat way a voice-over explains the yet-to-be-discovered medical secret behind Adaline’s suspended ageing to the audience behind her back, but I do like how little this McGuffin matters, and how Adaline must grope around in the dark without such insights. She’s less curious about why this has happened to her than about how to live with her situation. One very standard plot response to narrative interruptions of normalcy such as this is for characters to figure out what’s up and Do Something About It. But real-life novums are more difficult to grasp and address than that (hi, climate change). I like the potentialities of this model of story, which is based on reacting to circumstances you can’t singularly and directly answer. There’s something about that framing that feels curiously suited to a female protagonist. After all, female agency is so often circumscribed in ways that make undertaking Quests to Restore the Rightful Status Quo impossible. And it’s not as if said Status Quo necessarily does women many favours in the first place. In a way reactive narratives, often criticised for undermining characters’ agency, enable stories to trouble that "rightful," and can reflect and explore sociological and psychological realities and possibilities less accessible to iterations of the ready-made disruption/solution structure.
Cecily Kane has pointed out the paucity of female time traveller narratives, and she’s done a good job situating this lacunae in its generic and marketing contexts. It is therefore in and of itself interesting that Adaline is a somewhat-curtailed female version of Hob Gadling from Sandman. She doesn’t live as long as Hob does, true—I suspect this is probably borne of an effort to make her “relatable,” and to avoid dealing with her degree of complicity in historical injustices. We don’t see Adaline’s (changing?) opinions on race, for example. And the movie is very white—strangely so, for California. We’re shown a white, het San Francisco. If I have to explain to you what a radical AU that is, you have never so much as driven through NorCal.
Despite this curtailment, via quasi-time-travel Adaline does acquire some of the qualities that interest audiences in male examples of this trope, such as hyper-competence and an enviable cool. She is smooth in a way women are rarely allowed to be in film, uniting knowledge, sophistication, wit, detachment (due to her always having a foot out the door, ready to move on to the next life), a calm born of having seen it all and an affectionate, grandmotherly wisdom. Adaline is a character, or at least a character type, that I could grow to like in a story that did her better service. In this film, she’s a bit too overdetermined by her provenance: what Adaline is and what she likes is her own history.
We spend profitable time looking at Adaline’s relationships, focusing primarily on her present existence rather than on her “first life.” Too much emphasis on that initial lifespan would render it definitional in a way the text doesn’t think it is. Adaline as we come to know her is as defined by her later romances as by her first, probably more so. The film’s not overly burdened with a reliance on unevenly successful midlife flashbacks, a device beloved of the very similarly constructed (and sometimes quite entertaining) television series Forever (aka Hornblower the Immortal Doctor (aka Well-Paying American Work for Ioan Gruffudd and Burn Gorman (aka Cancelled))).
In the present, Adaline’s friend, a blind pianist, believes Adaline to be younger than she is and older than she looks. We must presume this offers the protagonist a degree of relief from having to pretend to be twenty-nine all the time. This makes sense, because I’ve always thought that the Twilight scenario (vampires being another, similar quasi-time-travel-device), wherein you have to attend high school for the rest of your unnatural, must be unliving hell. Adaline’s dog is one of a long familial line, and, when he dies (fair warning—my girlfriend fumed that she did not know this would be a Dog Death film (should have checked doesthedogdie.com)), we see her mourning him in this context. Adaline’s daughter, now forced to claim to be her grandmother, enjoys a loving relationship with her mother, complicated believably by their circumstances. The eventuality of the daughter’s death and the materiality and logistics of her ageing hang over them, not as an awful spectre, but in the way death is always present in intergenerational familial relationships. The way they discuss and refuse to discuss these topics feels real, and is affecting. Age is definitely Bechdel-Wallace compliant here, and way better for it.
These are some of the most appealing parts of the film, and if they don’t coalesce into a strong enough narrative—If a part of me wishes that, in addition to all this, Adaline had some adventure to go on—then I still don’t want them gone. Disraeli said that, for the middle class, marriage was often the only adventure of life. The adventure to which the plot does call Adaline is just that, with all the lack of lustre that fabulously nasty quote implies. This relationship is also the film’s least successful element. In a way, The Age of Adaline works better as science fiction than as romance.
The male lead (Michiel Huisman) is An Attractive Man. He will Break Down Her Walls by doing exactly the same intrusive “behold my first editions” move that was awkward and unsexy even before it was boundary-violating in Fifty Shades of Grey, here with added job-based pressure, because Adaline works at a library/historical archive. An Attractive Man will donate valuable volumes to Adaline’s workplace if she goes on a date with him. The cutesy offer-cum-threat is big and public, and he’s on the board of directors. We know Adaline is safe because she’s not monetarily dependent on this role or deeply attached to it, but if she weren’t an immortal, this would be a creep using his money to pressure essentially-his-employee. The fact that this creep is Classically Attractive would be immaterial. The situation is additionally unnerving because Adaline’s hesitance to disclose her address, be photographed, discuss her past or become close to this man would, in real life, read to me as screaming indicators that Adaline was a recovering domestic abuse survivor (and/or still in hiding from past abusers). In that context, Attractive Male Lead’s relentless pursuit (which includes him sort of making a moment when she’s upset about her recently dead dog About Him, and her subsequently apologising for failing to recognise his Niceness) would actually be a horrifying series of well-intentioned but damaging blunders.
Generally, once An Attractive Man has arrived on the scene, the lines and the plot developments get incredibly What-You’d-Expect. The Male Lead’s personality is Hipster, and his job is Being Rich In An Attractive And Blameless, Charitable Manner (which reminds me of Said’s point about the underlying dodginess of sources of wealth in Austen novels: there are very, very few Pure magnates under capitalism). He’s positioned as self-made, but we see later on that he comes from money, so it’s a bit like when you “cook” a ready-meal. They go on cute dates, such as the time he tells a woman born in 1904 who works with historical archives and has lived in San Francisco for most of her life that the city is partly built on top of abandoned ships. This is a little like how, in the awful Jill Patton Walsh conclusion to Dorothy Sayers’ Thrones, Dominations (1998), Lord Peter lectures his wife Harriet about the Great Stink. Look. Harriet fucking knows about that. I know about that, in both these cases (Disraeli was equally nasty about that situation, calling the Thames: “a stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horror”, but less catchily so I’m afraid, unless you’re big into Lovecraft), and both these people are better informed about these specific subjects than I am. Quit wiki-trawling for material, for fuck’s sake.
The plot turns up, sort of, when Adaline visits the family home of this boy she’s commitmentphobic with, for his parents’ big anniversary party. Surprise, she shtupped the dad decades ago. She gaslights him a bit: oh nooooo, that wasn’t meeeeee. Harrison Ford, in dad guise, looks surprised to be doing a little acting again. A very little. (Part-time.) Did-it-with-the-Dad finally calls her on being his ex and not his ex’s doppelganger daughter. He tells her to love again and stuff. She loves again and stuff.
Adaline gets into another car accident that "corrects" her condition, even as the plot has already fixed her reticence to involve herself in more expiration-dated romantic relationships. In part the film accomplishes this reconciliation by locating Adaline’s fear in the FBI incident rather than in the loss of people she’s cared about over the decades. That would have been a meatier problem. I like how Adaline realises that she is ageing again only slowly and obliquely, but the car accident feels unnecessary. Overall, "let love for a bland man into your heart despite your reasonable fears for your physical and/or emotional safety, or it’ll badger you endlessly" isn’t much of a message, except for how it conveys that women are never okay alone, that the withdrawal of women is never acceptable, or the right choice for them, or even just not other people’s concern. You must always go to the party, even if you’re tired or have other business. It was Adaline’s misfortune to be frozen at an age and in a condition where she was still visible to men (and thus they were still interested in claiming the entitlement all men possess to women’s time). Maybe if she’d looked 50, she could have been left the fuck alone to be sad about her dead dog for a hot minute.
I don’t have a bow to tie on this one. I’m not going to say "ah, if only there hadn’t been romance in my scifi!" because I have read and written a Proustian amount of smut and have fewer regrets than I should. (Where did my time go? Nowhere useful.) Besides, there are too few good romance films being made at present. My kingdom for a screwball comedy that respected me, but at least this script is trying. It isn’t hard to write a good het romance—even a basic example of the breed (though the patriarchy obviously does present you with a bit of a fence to jump)—but hardly anyone can be bothered, despite evidence that markets will go bananas, b-a-n-a-n-a-s for anything approaching one. I both want to ditch the film’s slice of life material that won’t quite coalesce and think that ditching it would be doing violence to an endangered species (look: some women talked to each other in a film, that’s astounding), so cannot countenance that. I want Adaline to do a little more as a character and Adaline to do a lot more as a film, but ultimately I want more female characters like this, complete with better stories to inhabit. I want more stories like this, but I want them to work a little harder.