Harrison Ford's role in The Age of Adaline, a romantic fantasy that opened commercially this past weekend, would be a challenge for any actor. From the moment Ford appears onscreen, his character is overcome by such intense feeling that he suspects he might be going mad. The movie shows the character behaving normally only in flashbacks to the late 1960s (which occur after he's introduced) and in a brief shot that occurs in the closing montage. Otherwise we get to know him exclusively by how he doesn't want to behave. Ford must imply how the character usually behaves based on how he tries to hold back a tide of longing, regret, and embarrassment, feelings he's suppressed for over 40 years. Though technically a supporting performance, Ford's work in Adaline is the component that holds the film together, throwing the central conflict (which is more fantastic in conception than his subplot but less audacious in execution) into relief.
The introduction of his character about halfway into Adaline feels almost like the start of another movie. Ford's grown son has arrived for a family retreat with the title character, a young woman who looks and talks exactly like Ford's first great love. That woman disappeared from his life about 45 years earlier, just before he was about to propose to her. He become happy in life and love all the same—the family retreat is to celebrate his 40th anniversary with the woman he ended up marrying—but the question of what might have been never left the back of his mind. Seeing the face of his ideal woman unleashes that tide of emotion. His efforts to keep them under control is like a noncomic variation on Steve Martin wrestling with the possessed right side of his body in All of Me.
Ford's appearance suggests a model of aged male gentleness—his shaggy chin beard makes him look like a beloved pet billy goat, and his big, circular glasses make him look like a cartoon owl. The 72-year-old actor wears this getup as though he's long been settled into it. Even when he seems anguished, his posture is never erect, a sign he's lived comfortably for years before this extraordinary coincidence walked into his home. One senses he wouldn't let anything seriously threaten that comfort—he's too old, for one thing, and also too proud of his children to embarrass himself in front of them. Say this really was his lost love back from the past—what would he even do with her?
The motif of the uncanny double is much older than movies—it's central to Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and Dostoevsky's The Double, to name the first two examples that come to mind. Yet Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and its many imitators confirm that this motif also resonates in cinema. James Stewart's attempt to fashion Kim Novak's Judy Barton into a duplicate of the dead woman she resembles is a rich metaphor for what most narrative filmmakers do when they make any actor conform to their image of a fictional character. But Stewart's shock at seeing a double of his dead lover also suggests a more galvanic version of what most of us experience when we go to the movies. In most narrative films (that is, the ones that don't aspire to emulate documentary realism), the people we relate to onscreen are at once like us and nothing like us. They're more handsome and charismatic than most people in life—they always know exactly how to walk and what to say, and they never trip over their words. If one were to encounter a Hollywood-movie heroine in the real world, he or she would probably find the experience unnerving, just like Ford and all the other folks in Age of Adaline who are dumbfounded by Blake Lively's preternaturally poised young woman. (Incidentally, Lively's performance comes off as a stilted Grace Kelly impression—just like Novak's performance in Vertigo whenever she's playing Madeleine Elster.)
Adaline is what a certain school of American film critics used to call a "movie movie," a species of ornate Hollywood spectacle that invites viewers to revel in tried-and-true modes of cinematic artifice. I've grown more partial to "movie movies" the more that Hollywood blockbusters have come to resemble sitcoms and video games, which is to say I'm probably more accepting of Adaline's contrivances than the average viewer. But even I had trouble swallowing such excessively tidy screenwriting that has the title character—a young woman who magically stops aging in the late 1920s—meeting and falling in love with the son of the man she jilted in another country 45 years earlier. What redeems the movie for me is the sincerity with which the filmmakers deliver these contrivances, a sincerity that culminates in Ford's performance.
Consider the first few meetings between Adaline and Ford's son, a young mathematician who's devoted his life to philanthropic projects since making millions off a special algorithm. He does his best to act like the debonair lead of a 30s romance, and she plays along swimmingly. Yet there's a melancholy undertone to these slowly paced, underlit scenes. It's clear that Adaline's been here before. She knows young love—in fact, it's the only kind of love she can know. (She swore off lasting relationships after losing her husband in the 1930s.) Is she just humoring the philanthropist or does she want to recapture a bit of what he's just capturing for the first time? The filmmakers don't offer a clear answer to this question. Adaline's true feelings are always at an arm's length from the audience, which makes sense to me: I'm not sure if the movie's fantastic premise could have retained its allure if this cursed woman were made entirely relatable. The burden of relatability falls mainly on Ford, and he shoulders it just fine.