This engaging, intergenerational love story is based on the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks, who also wrote A Walk to Remember. Sparks's novel rests in good hands with this fine adaptation by Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi. Leven's credits include The Legend of Bagger Vance and Don Juan DeMarco. Like those films, The Notebook retains the same gentle tone, thoughtfully and respectfully developing characters of depth and dignity. Sardi, meanwhile, is best known for Shine!, the delightfully quirky story of an eccentric Australian pianist. She brings the same energy to The Notebook, capturing the unique world of 1940s South Carolina.
The Notebook begins with an unlikely romance between a young woman from Southern aristocracy, and a blue-collar boy who works at the mill. Noah provides the spontaneity and joy that is missing from Allie's relentless climb up the social ladder. She's off to a classy college and he's looking at a proscribed life of honest, physical labor. In Allie's vivacity and intelligence Noah finds an intellectual and emotional challenge that is missing in his life. Despite the vast differences in wealth and possibilities, both Noah and Allie live lives stifled and defined by class and convention.
A parallel plot takes place between two elderly residents of a nursing home, where Duke (James Garner) reads a romantic novel to a woman suffering from Alzheimer's. She forgets who he is, and forgets that he has been reading to her every day, but once the narrative begins she starts to remember, or at least feel, her life. At times she has clear, but agonizingly brief moments of memory. The staff and Duke's family feel he is wasting his time, but he finds spiritual meaning in the daily interaction. He expects little more than companionship, and takes solace and pleasure from being with the woman as she struggles to keep her fading humanity.
Duke—possibly Garner's finest role—begins as a kindly Southern gentleman, decent and well-mannered. As the story unfolds, we see a man of great spiritual and emotional depth, who at times must face true horror. Gena Rowlands as the old woman is equally engaging. In her we see the longing for a lucid past and the stark terror of losing one's mind and sense of self. Rowlands treats her character with a dignity and honesty that allow us to feel her joy and her terrified confusion.
Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams are engaging as Noah and Allie, the star-crossed young lovers, but they are a bit melodramatic. If the movie rested completely in their hands, it might come across as a Southern bodice-ripper, complete with antebellum mansions and mossy trees. We are meant to experience their torrid love affair in retrospect however, and when balanced against the deftly nuanced performances of Garner and Rowlands, the effect is quite touching. The Notebook remains in the memory longer than most of the "feel-good" romances in theaters. Nonetheless, it makes us feel good indeed—good in a deeply thoughtful and spiritual way.