Adaline Bowman deserves a better movie than The Age of Adaline. And she probably deserves a better actor than Blake Lively, though this is vastly better work than Lively has done anywhere else in her career.

Adaline, as we are told by the authoritative, detached narrator (Hugh Ross, who filled the same role, and with much the same tone of educated boredom, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) was born on 1 January, 1908 in San Francisco, California. She lived a perfectly normal life, fell in love, got married, had a child, lost her husband in a work accident, and in 1937, she got into an car accident during a freak snowfall in the much-too-warm Sonoma County. During this accident, she fell into the water and almost died, saved when an equally freak lightning strike restarts her heart. Thanks to perfectly ordinary science that the narrator assures us will be discovered and written down in 2035, Adaline, from that moment forth, does not physically age.

It's perfectly fair for any viewer to have no interest in buying into such a dippy premise, though the dry narration from a chronologically placeless narrator does an enormous amount of good work in selling the concept. But anyway, let us assume that we're fine with the basic hook of a woman who doesn't age, with a snapshot of her life from 1937 to January and February, 2015; that's a fucking wonderful hook. There's so much you can do with that hook; almost by default, it's going to involve the character having a unique perspective on the development of the 20th Century, and also feeling increasingly profound loss as the people she loves age and die, one generation at a time. And The Age of Adaline engages with those things, kind of. It certainly keeps them humming along in the background. But the actual screenplay that J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz produced from that hook and with that background is definitely not the best one that could exist. It's also, God knows, not the worst - the superficial and less-superficial similarities between The Age of Adaline and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is sufficient evidence of how shitty and slack this easily could be, with the right mismanagement.

It is, at any rate, largely concerned with Adaline's life starting on 31 December, 2014 - the day before her 107th birthday - and going for the next month or so as she enters into an affair with Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), a young rich guy who becomes infatuated with her while donating rare books to the library and archive where she oh-so-metaphorically works. Her backstory is doled out in the form of flashbacks triggered by old newsreels, remembered spaces, and faces from her past drifting in unexpectedly, which comes off as a sweet and sad way of building the narrative around her awareness of time passing all around her, of being fundamentally not of the era she has been placed into. But it's also pretty clearly the case that the backstory is more interesting than the A-plot, with its wealth of dramatic possibilities: the McCarthy-era terror of a nice suburban woman who finds herself some kind of inexplicable freak in the period of American history least friendly towards freaks; the way that discarding old identities and moving every few years turns into a bored habit; finding her daughter growing from child to same-aged peer to older woman, all without the basic mother-daughter relationship shifting. There's a lot of material that's more unique than "woman with a past that leaves her gunshy about starting relationships meets a handsome but not very interesting young beardy fellow". Watching the film, I found myself palpably yearning for The Age of Adaline as a four-hour epic, or The Age of Adaline as a TV miniseries. The Age of Adaline the soap opera simply doesn't have the weight and scope and scale that the material implies; the filmmakers and Lively all try their best to impress upon us the grim history of Adaline's unchanging life, but there's only so much that can be done in 110 minutes, when most of it is dedicated to recapping the usual romantic drama beats with only a striking gimmick to differentiate it from the rest.

That being said, the parts of The Age of Adaline that tap into that awful stretched-out history of loneliness really are superb. Lively's performance is almost entirely at the mercy of her scene partners, but the two best actors in the film also happen to have the most interesting roles and the most interesting, challenging scenes for the star to attack. I am here thinking of Ellen Burstyn as Adaline's daughter as a senior citizen, saddled with the unfortunate name "Flemming" (and talk about a bizarre late-career niche; with this and Interstellar, Burstyn has now appeared in two consecutive films as the 80-something child of a visually much-younger parent), whose scenes with Lively are probably the best thing in the film, as both actors commit unhesitatingly to the weird requirements of their parts, and do more to insist on the reality of the gimmick than anything else does. The other is Harrison Ford as William Jones, Ellis's father, who was desperately in love with Adaline in the '60s and was ready to propose to her until she jumped ship for fear of being pinned down and found out (the character is played as a young man by Anthony Ingruber, whose appropriation of Fordisms from the '70s and '80s is impressively committed and somehow deeply off-putting). Ford's dazzled shock, suffocating nostalgia, and poorly-disguised desire at meeting the apparent clone of his One True Love - she claims to be Adaline's daughter - is easily the best work he's done since the 1990s, and he pulls Lively up with him; their portrayal of a pair of doomed lovers is so heartbreaking and honest that it makes Lively and Huisman's chemistry feel even weaker than it already did for the movie's first half. Which is very little - Huisman is a total non-entity in the film, and Lively saves all of her energy for putting over the idea of Adaline as a woman who came of age in the '30s and has been juggling new social mores for the rest of her live, leaving her with nothing left over to prop up the flagging romance.

Still, Lively's best moments are really quite lovely, presented by director Lee Toland Krieger and his team with enough of a wintry, faded tone (especially in the cinematography by David Lanzenberg and the fantastic costume design by Angus Strathie, elegant but just forced enough to make the character appear slightly uncomfortable) that what the performer can't supply, the movie props up for her. It's a surprisingly tired movie, The Age of Adaline is, one that manages to imply a sense of lost things and too many memories through its visuals and its cutting, even if the script can't do the same. Fix the central romance, and the rest falls into place quite naturally, right down to an ending that should feel contrived as hell, except that the film presents it with such no-big-dealishness that it simply doesn't. There's a historically richer Age of Adaline, and a more emotionally nuanced Age of Adaline, and even an Age of Adaline that's a better conventional romantic drama. But even this Age of Adaline is still surprisingly smart and moving and much worthier of a viewing than everything about it would naturally suggest.