A reel librarian for the ages in ‘The Age of Adaline’

Earlier this year, I watched the 2015 film The Age of Adaline, starring Blake Lively as the title character. I saved my analysis post of this film for the end of this month, as the film is set around the New Year holidays.

Here’s a trailer for the film:

The plot? Adaline, a young woman and a recent widow, gets into a car accident in the 1930s and stops aging as a result of the accident. After decades of living alone, she meets a man, Ellis (Michiel Huisman) who makes her question her life choices. Even though that plot has a bit of mumbo jumbo narration thrown in to try and explain the scientific reasoning behind Adaline’s agelessness, it’s played as a pretty straightforward romantic drama. Blake Lively definitely commits to the title role and brings a world-weariness to her portrayal of Adaline. However, the real stars that shine in the movie are Harrison Ford, who plays Ellis’s father, William, and Ellen Burstyn, who plays Adaline’s daughter, Flemming.

The director, Lee Toland Krieger, reveals on the bonus features how much thought he put into the look and feel of the film, focusing on different camera techniques to visually depict the different decades of the film and its flashbacks. The film is stunning to look at.

*SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD*

Just five minutes into the film, we get a sweeping view of Adaline as she walks up the steps of a library. The film is set in San Francisco, but these scenes were filmed at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline walks up the library steps

As she walks into a light-filled room rimmed with bookcases and filing cabinets and card catalogs, we see a woman sitting at the desk by a computer (Cora, played by Indian-British actress Anjali Jay), and a man standing by the window (Kenneth, played by Japanese-Canadian actor Hiro Kanagawa). We also glimpse an older woman in the background by the bookshelves, but she doesn’t get a screen credit. Adaline’s co-workers are surprised to see her.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline’s co-workers are surprised to her on New Year’s Eve

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline greets her co-workers at the library on New Year’s Eve

Kenneth:  We thought you might not be coming in today, it being New Year’s Eve and all.

Adaline:  It’s still a Wednesday. The fun doesn’t start till tonight anyway.

Kenneth:  Well, are you up for a little excitement right now?

Adaline:  Sure, what is it?

Kenneth:  Your favorite. The news reel archives. It’s finally being digitized. We need a little help getting it ready to be shipped.

Adaline:  I’d love to.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline and the archives

We then go into a scene in which Adaline sets up the film reel projector and settles in to watch news reel archives of San Francisco. This is a clever set-up for the narrator to take over and introduce her life while a montage of clips visually accompany the central plot phenomenon. As the narrator explains, at age 29 in 1937, Adaline gets into a car accident. As a result, her cells stop aging, leaving her perpetually 29 years old, even as her daughter and everyone else around her ages.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline watches a news reel from the early 1900s

Although only a few minutes long, these scenes in the library archives are crucial to introducing the film and introducing us to the character (and motivations) of Adaline. Through her conversation with Kenneth, we learn that Adaline eschews socializing and is committed to her work, and that she loves working with archives. And then we find out why through the montage. We also see in the montage that Adaline studies up on her condition, taking a clerical job at a school of medicine. It’s a very clever and compact scene, one that includes an emphasis on archives and the value of researching and reading.

We also get introduced to the style of Adaline, who is in her prime — and dresses accordingly — through multiple decades. She has a classic style, which comes across as retro-inspired in the present day. She is a lady, and her clothing and hairstyles reflect that. I am definitely adding Adaline to my list of most stylish reel librarians!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline in her closet

Reel Librarians | A collage of Adaline's style through the decades

A collage of Adaline’s style through the decades

Adaline then dresses up for a New Year’s Eve party, where she “meets cute” with Ellis in the hotel elevator, setting off the romance part of the film’s plot.

Ellis:  I don’t want to come across like a know-it-all.

Adaline:  Too bad, I adore know-it-alls.

Ellis is (understandably) smitten, but Adaline keeps an emotional distance, as she doesn’t want to get involved with anyone. She is also about to change identities yet again, something she does every decade to escape notice.

Unbeknownst to her, Ellis had already noticed Adaline before the party. Later, he describes how he first noticed her when she was reading a Braille book on the front steps of the library. For someone who’s trying to go unnoticed, she fails spectacularly!

Reel Librarians | A collage of Adaline reading a book in braille on the library steps

A collage of Adaline reading a book in braille on the library steps

A half-hour into the film, Ellis returns to the library to donate a lot of rare first editions. (It turns out he has made a lot of money in the tech industry and is now giving back and doing good works.) Just the way to capture a reel librarian’s heart!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Ellis returns to the library to donate books

Adaline’s co-worker, Cora, gets some lines to provide the backstory — plus reveals the name of where they work.

Cora:  Major news. Mr. Jones is donating $50,000 worth of first edition classics to this library.

Adaline:  What books? Do you know?

Cora:  We’re going to find out very soon. Because his office called to say that he’ll be here to deliver them himself.

Cora [to Ellis]:  On behalf of the San Francisco Heritage Society, I’d like to express our sincere gratitude for your most generous gift.

Note:  I could not find record of a San Francisco Heritage Society (y’all knew I would look that up, right?). However, I suspect it’s standing in for the California Historical Society, which has headquarters in San Francisco. The California Historical Society does have its own library.

Ellis then proceeds with his real mission: to flirt with Adaline. Cue the obligatory library ladder scene!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Library ladder scene in ‘The Age of Adaline’ (2015)

Ellis:  Hey, it’s me. The know-it-all. I got something for you, too. Some flowers. [Gives her a gift of first editions: Daisy Miller, Dandelion Wine, White Oleander.]

Adaline:  Very clever. How did you know I work here?

Ellis:  I just joined the board. I saw you coming out of our meeting.

Adaline:  Oh. You could have mentioned that in the elevator.

Ellis:  I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for some donating.

Adaline:  Great. I’ll be here.

Ellis:  No way. I would like for you to accept the books on behalf of the library.

Ellis wants to take a photograph of Adaline accepting the books, but of course, she has her own reasons for not wanting to be photographed. She initially refuses, giving him a stern look, as seen in the screenshot below. (By the way, I love the composition of this shot! They all look like professionals, but Adaline stands out in green against the blacks and greys of her reel librarian co-workers.)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline refuses to be photographed accepting a donation of books to the library

Then Ellis threatens to take away his donation.

Ellis:  Suit yourself. If you won’t accept them, I won’t donate them.

Adaline:  You wouldn’t do that.

Ellis:  I will. I’ll even have a book burning. Okay, fine, fine. Here’s an alternative. Let me take you out tomorrow.

I know this is the central romance of the film, and this is supposed to be another “meet cute” scene, but I was incensed at this. A man “joking” about a book burning?! I was literally shouting at the screen, “NO!!!! That is NOT the man for you. Walk away!”

Ellis then attempts to make up for this later when he woos Adaline by complimenting the way she reads. He seems to appreciate Adaline’s intelligence and knowledge, even saying, “You can tell me anything you want, and I’ll believe it.”

His father, William, is not so easily convinced. Ellis wants Adaline to meet his parents, and we get a brief scene an hour into the film between William and his wife, Kathy. William questions any woman who’s beautiful who is “hiding out in a library,” and he suspects her of being a gold-digger.

William:  So, what’s the story with this girl? She works there?

Kathy:  I’ve told you everything Ellis told me.

William:  A beautiful girl working in a public library.

Kathy:  Maybe she likes books. And silence.

William:  Or maybe she Googled him, and found out about his generous contribution and then worked her way in there so she could get her hooks into him.

But Adaline shows up William when they all play Trivial Pursuit. William has had a longtime winning streak — he’s a professor — but Adaline sweeps the game due to her lifetime of knowledge. It’s an enjoyable scene.

More romantic drama ensues, including a super-awkward love triangle, plus some more scientific mumbo jumbo thrown into the mix. I won’t reveal the ending of the film, but it’s pretty predictable. Enjoyably predictable, but predictable nonetheless.

So why is Adaline working in a library? As the New York Times review puts it, “By the time the present rolls around, Adaline has become an emotional shut-in.” The library — or at least the library at this particular historical society — is a quiet place, which suits her. There is no mention of qualifications or education for any of the four librarians pictured onscreen, but it’s obvious that Adaline has lots of personal experience with the older technology and artifacts.

We see Adaline do a variety of tasks in the library, including helping out with archives, running news reels on film projectors, stacking and shelving books, and filing cards. Her co-workers are seen working on computers. They must leave the older technology to Adaline! 😉

Reel Librarians | A collage of Adaline using older technology in the library

A collage of Adaline using older technology in the library

Adaline mentions several times about having to work for a living:

  • I only get an hour” [for lunch]
  • Some of us work for a living.”

However, we witness a flashback scene in which we learn that she has bought stock in Xerox. My thoughts are that she doesn’t actually need to work for a living; she simply prefers to do so in order to keep her mind alert, to utilize her knowledge and skills, and to indulge her nostalgia for the past. An historical library and museum are a good fit for those purposes.

Adaline’s co-workers serve the role of Information Providers, which is pretty straightforward. We don’t learn much about them as individuals, but I do enjoy the diversity of the reel librarians seen onscreen, representing different ages, genders, and ethnicities.

What purpose then does Adaline provide in this role as a reel librarian? I believe she serves the role of a Liberated Librarian:

  • Female Liberated Librarians tend to “discover” themselves with the help of a man or in the face of an adventure/disaster. (Check. Her life does change when she meet Ellis.)
  • The “liberations” can be positive or negative. (It’s positive in this film)
  • They are usually substantial roles with the librarian’s “liberation” often the film’s major plot. (Check and check. Adaline is the title character, and her “liberation” is both emotional and physical.)

Adaline is, indeed, “hiding out” in the library, trying to go unnoticed and to stay emotionally unattached. She is perfectly content in her life and at the library — but she is also content to leave that job and move on in order to preserve her privacy.

The Age of Adaline (2015) ends up in the Class II category, films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot.

The film’s conclusion, however, does not answer whether or not she will continue to work at the library. My guess — or rather, hope? — is that she will, but then, I’m also a romantic librarian at heart. ♥


And with that, 2016 comes to a close for Reel Librarians. I’ll be back next week — and next year! — with a wrap-up for 2016. Have a great New Year’s holiday!

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2 comments on “A reel librarian for the ages in ‘The Age of Adaline’

  1. popegrutch says:

    Interestingly, I’m less troubled by his threat of a “book-burning” (those words just don’t scare me anymore, since weeding became a big part of my job), than I am by his willingness to use his donation as leverage to force someone into a romantic situation. This bodes ill for a future relationship, if it begins based on coercion.
    The other thing that bothers me is the question of “rare first editions” as a desirable donation in themselves. There is always a cost associated with accepting a book donation, and if he’s so rich, he should be providing funding for processing and preservation, at least.
    Anyway, thanks as always for the thoughtful review.

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