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How 'The Age of Adaline' gets eight decades of historical minutiae right

Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) and Adaline Bowman (Blake

Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) and Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) in "The Age of Adaline." Credit: Diyah Pera

Creating a fantasy like "The Age of Adaline" -- in which actress Blake Lively's title character remains 29 years old for eight decades -- requires something timeless: attention to detail.

"One of things that intrigued me about making the film was the opportunity to re-create different decades," said director Lee Toland Krieger ("Celeste and Jesse Forever"). To that end, he said, various eras were re-imagined via the technology available to them: For instance, 1908 -- when our heroine, Adaline Bowman, is born -- was filmed by cinematographer David Lanzenberg using hand-cranked cameras. The '20s, during which time Adaline experiences the fluky confluence of nature that freezes her in her 29th year, were captured through period lenses. For more contemporary times, the lighting was sharper. Likewise the images.

The costumes, of course, were meticulously designed or chosen. But so were the people.

"I got really involved in the casting, even in casting backgrounds," Krieger said. "Given who and where Adaline was, the crowds were mostly Caucasian, maybe WASPier looking; there's not as much of a blend of people as there would be today. I picked faces that fit the background.

"If you don't understand her traveling though time, you're not going to buy the film's hook."

Which is that Adaline Bowman never ages, and will never die. A widow with a young daughter living in San Francisco, she goes off the road one night during a freak snowstorm, and ends up under frigid water. The combination of her 87-degree body temperature, almost imperceptible heart rate and a rogue bolt of lightning -- which delivers, the narrator tells us, a half-billion-volt insult to Adaline's existing injuries -- causes her body to stop aging. Forever.

Not wanting to become a public freak or government science project, Adaline lives a decades-long life of mystery; immortality, it turns out, is not all it's cracked up to be. But it never really has been at the movies. How can you deal with romance, for instance, when you're going to outlive anyone you ever love?

Adaline is determined to live alone, but a crisis point is reached when she meets Ellis, a "dynamic young entrepreneur" played by the increasingly ubiquitous, Dutch-born Michiel Huisman, who has TV's "Orphan Black," "Game of Thrones," "Treme" and "Nashville" under his belt, as well as the Oscar-nominated "Wild." While Ellis is trying to figure out what exactly is going on inside Adaline, Adaline is trying to reconcile her attraction to Ellis with her isolationist policies.

"From the outside, you don't really notice anything, except she has tremendous knowledge, and great depth as a person," Huisman said of Adaline. "It isn't until very late in the movie do I understand what has actually happened." What really was a challenge, he said, was doing a scene featuring Ellen Burstyn -- who plays Adaline's much-older-than-her mother daughter, Flemming -- and making it real. "But Ellen, with her tremendous energy and the way she threw into that scene, she made it great for me." Also co-starring are Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker, who play Ellis' parents.

Huisman said what he loved about the script was "telling the story of a woman who found the fountain of youth, something people have eternally been looking for, and then it turns out to be a burden. The message was really nice, actually. One of the things I hope people will do, aside from enjoying themselves for an hour and a half, is embrace the cycle of life, or whatever you call it. Don't complain that you're getting older; it's good."

Of course, not everyone who gets to stay 29 forever looks like Blake Lively. "But here's what I would say to that," said Krieger. "I like the idea that she's a woman. The pressure on women to remain young and look beautiful is more severe than ever, and much more than for men. But to put a finer point on it the notion, you have a protagonist who's Blake Lively, a statuesque, ideal-looking woman who's remained so for eight decades -- and then you get the rug pulled out from under you and learn it's been a curse."

His movie is "a fantasy wish-fulfillment thing" to some degree, Krieger agreed, "but there would actually be shortcomings to being ageless." And it's not as if playing someone ageless doesn't require a lot of work, he added.

"I had a number of conversations with Blake at the beginning," he said, "and among the first things we thought was 'OK, this is a woman coming of age for the first time in the '20s and '30s. What does she sound like? What's her posture? Her etiquette?' To her great credit, Blake went to etiquette classes and made sure her manners were consistent with someone of her time; she also speaks in a slightly more formal fashion." (Lively worked with dialect coach Elizabeth Himelstein, who has coached such stars as Frances McDormand, Nicole Kidman, Kathy Bates and Forest Whitaker on various films.)

"And the way Blake moves, I think, speaks a lot about her," Krieger said. "Adaline was raised at a time when inequality was really serious, so there would be a great deal of strength to her, a single mother, widowed, that would resonate in things like her posture and dress."

If she has a "superpower," Krieger added, it's being "hyper-observant." Nothing gets by Adaline. She has, after all, been around the block more than once.



Living forever in the movies

Immortality has always been a favorite of the film industry, especially if one includes vampires, sci-fi phenomena and the "Final Destination" franchise (seven movies and counting). But "The Age of Adaline" is about a different kind of eternal life, one that was never asked for, or necessarily wanted, and which poses any number of knotty metaphysical questions. Some of the better examples:


DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934) -- The great Frederic March played Death, who took human form to find out why people feared him in this adaptation of the Italian play "La Morte in Vacanza" by Alberto Casella, which inspired among other things a 1998 remake ("Meet Joe Black") and a 2011 Broadway musical. It's not just an individual who's immortal in Mitchell Leisen's film, but all of humanity -- when Death takes off to woo the woman he loves, nobody dies. The suggestion is that this would not be good.

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945) -- There are any number of film versions of Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel, dating back to 1916. But the most famous probably remains the Albert Lewin-directed version with Hurd Hatfield as Wilde's progressively demented but eternal hero, who keeps that deteriorating portrait up in his attic.

TUCK EVERLASTING (1981 and 2002) -- The classic children's book has inspired two movie versions -- the first directed by Frederick King Keller, the second by Jay Russell and produced by Disney -- about a family, a magic spring and the double-edged sword of immortality.COCOON (1985) -- A trio of codgers (Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley and Hume Cronyn) finds that swimming in the mysterious pool next to their retirement home makes them feel like a million bucks. But when they discover that the pool is a resting place for cocooned aliens awaiting a trip back home, the plot thickens. Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton and Gwen Verdon play their wives in Ron Howard's pop romance, which takes care not to ask too many questions about what endless life has to offer.

GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) -- Even attempted suicide doesn't stop weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) from reliving the same Punxsutawney day over and over to the point of desperation, although Phil does find a way to turn it to his advantage in this classic comedy by Harold Ramis. -- John Anderson

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