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The Undying Appeal of Mortal Love

"The Age of Adaline" puts a human face on immortality, and captures the joy of finding someone with whom one can grow old.
Age of Adaline

Spoiler alert: Spoilers abound in this review. But read on anyway. The beauty of “The Age of Adaline” is in its presentation and its romantic moral lesson, not its implausible plot.

Vampire movies are now passe as a cinematic vehicle for considering weighty questions like mortality. As a fan of the genre, it pains me to admit that, but what else can you conclude when vampirism has become just another hazard of a high school girl’s love life, like pimples and a 32A bra size? And where high school boys are more concerned about the size of their biting fangs than the size of their… uh, you know what.

Have no fear, though. Immortality is not dead yet as a topic for secular movies. This year’s Lionsgate production “The Age of Adaline,” for example, has an innovative approach. Suppose that by some freakish accident (say, being hit by lightning and surviving) you became immortal, even while everyone around you continues to age and finally succumbs to that one-on-one with the grim reaper? How would that make you feel? (This assumes, of course, that you become immortal at an age where you are still fit and attractive—not as a pudgy old man or wrinkled old woman. Remember, we’re talking about the movies.)

Our initial reaction—other than consternation—might be: Lucky me! No Botox in my future, I’ll always be attractive to the opposite sex, and I’ll accumulate knowledge with age that will plunge me ahead in my career. But gradually reality sets in, as it does for Adeline in this movie. Your daughter grows older and older, while you do not; you have to let her in on the secret, and then the two of you pretend she’s your aunt, later your grandmother. False IDs become necessary to keep you at the same age to match your photo. Soon two FBI agents, who had the ID-artist under surveillance, are after you to see what your story is. You have to move each time a new, updated identity is needed.

Most of all, however, you increasingly feel the pain of loneliness. A vampire could create an immortal partner, even if it’s a partnership in hell, with some quick biting and sucking action. You can’t. So when you fall in love with your Mr. Right, you realize it won’t work. You can’t ask him to accept a marriage where he grows old while you stay the same age. So you never show up for the date where he was going to give you a ring. You move on, heartbroken.

In “The Age of Adaline,” our gal is played by Blake Lively with subdued emotions that are all the more powerful because of her need to suppress them. (She’s learned to accept her fate.) Adaline/Blake is also a classic beauty, which is appropriate since she is now over 100 years old; only hair styles and fashion styles change every decade or so to throw off the FBI snoops and work associates and friends who will start to wonder how she retains her beauty. Currently she works in the archives department of the San Francisco library, where she can reminisce over the events she’s witnessed in all those years; prepares to send her grandmotherish daughter to an assisted living facility; and refuses offers to date, which, after all, can come to no good. Immortality ain’t what it’s advertised to be.

Until she meets Ellis (played by Michiel Huisman) at a New Year’s Eve party she’s been dragged to by a friend. He is too handsome, too sincerely wonderful, and too persistent. It was obviously a case of love at first sight for both of them, and before she figures out how to refuse, he is taking her to meet his parents, who are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary.

That’s when the proverbial crap hits the fan. Before Ellis can introduce her to his parents as Jenny, the name she is now using, his father (played magnificently by Harrison Ford) blurts out her real name—Adaline!—in astonishment. Everyone wants to know, of course, why he seems to recognize her and calls her Adaline. Adaline quickly realizes this is the man she fell in love with a half century earlier, only to leave him jilted with his ring, and that now she’s in love with his son—only she can’t say any of that publicly, of course. Instead she says she looks very much like her mother, who was named Adaline, and Ellis’s father admits that he had been in love with her “mother.” Ellis’s mother is hurt because this is the first she’s heard of that love affair, even though it happened before the two of them met and got married. It’s a hefty shock coming on your 40th wedding anniversary. Everyone is in shock at this turn of events.

The remainder of “The Age of Adaline” is what sets it apart as a remarkable love story—three love stories, actually.

The easiest resolved is the love between Ellis’s father and mother. Mom has been jolted, but upon reflection realizes that the earlier love affair happened before they met, and she has had 40 years of proof that her husband truly loves her. The 40th wedding anniversary goes on as planned, with a house full of friends joining in the emotional and happy ceremony.

Then there’s that love story from a half century earlier. Ellis’s father realizes that Jenny is an exact clone of the Adaline he fell in love with—a scar, and its exact location, gives that away. Adaline explains her mortality dilemma, and that she really loved him but that’s why she had to jilt him. He’s a scientist, so he finds it hard to accept that claim of immortality, but the evidence is directly in front of him. He pleads with her not to jilt Ellis the way she did him, but she cannot help but run away again. When Ellis realizes Adaline has fled, his Dad tells him the true story, and Ellis pursues her.

Finally, there’s the culmination of the love affair between Ellis and Adaline. As she flees, Adaline is in another accident but is revived with a defibrillator, surviving with no apparent disabilities. Ellis and Adaline reunite, this time with Ellis knowing the truth. The movie fast forwards to a year later, and we see the couple preparing to go to an elegant party. Adaline takes one last trip to her vanity mirror to make sure everything is perfect, when she sees something. She plucks it out—it’s a gray hair! The second jolt of electricity, the one from the defibrillator, had reversed the effects of the long-ago lightning and made her mortal again. Her joy is overwhelming, for now she and Ellis can grow old together.

And that is the real lesson of this three-love-stories-for-the-price-of-one movie: The real joy in life is not to be immortal, but to find someone we love and grow old with together.

Hokey? You bet. Scientifically implausible—of course! This is a fable, dummy. A tear-jerker? Bring a whole box of Kleenex with you. This is why audiences love this movie and critics hate it, despite the Academy Award-quality performances by Blake Lively and Harrison Ford. “The Age of Adaline” speaks to the heart, not the cynical mind.

David Franke was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s. He is the author of a dozen books, including Safe PlacesThe Torture Doctor, and America’s Right Turn.



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