Movie Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife
Let’s get this out of the way right up front – The Time Traveler’s Wife is first and foremost a love story. Author Audrey Niffenegger put it all right there in the title of the book on which the film is based. If it were a more intellectual or scientific exploration of the theories of temporal displacement, it would have been called The Time Traveler (and it would have been written by somebody else). But, as the title indicates, there are two protagonists in this story. The well-worn plot device of time travel is used as a metaphor for the emotional distance that often creeps into even the most solid of long-term relationships. The film asks the audience to engage with the story and characters using their hearts, not their brains. If you know that going in, you’ll undoubtedly be able to enjoy the film more for what it is.
The star-crossed lovers in question are Claire Abshire (Rachel McAdams) and Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana). Henry, a research librarian, was born with a genetic anomaly, later dubbed Chrono-Displacement, which causes him to slip away from the present into the past or future. He can’t control where or when he goes, and his clothes and personal belongings don’t travel with him. So he often finds himself in compromising positions which require him to run, steal, fight and somehow survive until he’s pulled back to the present. One afternoon in the library he runs into Claire, an artist who not only knows everything about him, but tells him she’s been in love with him all her life.
Although none of this has happened yet for Henry at this point in his life, Claire first met him when she was six years-old. He continued visiting her at different points throughout her childhood, and she has grown up knowing that one day she’ll be his wife. By the time they meet in the library, although he doesn’t know her, she’s been waiting for that moment for years. Waiting will continue to be a theme for Claire as their relationship grows and develops into cohabitation, then marriage. His unannounced departures and arrivals begin to wear on her, as does a series of miscarriages which prevent her from carrying his child to full term. It turns out that happily ever after is not as simple as it may have once seemed, for both Henry and Claire.
The film does touch on the conflict between destiny and free will, but only in the most superficial ways. In this world, the future is seemingly predetermined. Henry explains to Claire that he’s never been able to change anything, including his own mother’s death in an automobile accident. There’s a lot of explaining going on in this film, actually. The old writer’s mantra of “show, don’t tell” seems to have been thrown out the window here in favor of dialogue describing action we never get to see (like Henry’s attempts to save his mother). A few more scenes and a little less dialogue would have gone a long way towards furthering the emotional resonance of the film.
To be fair, a big part of that may have been lost in the tricky translation of the book to the screen. It’s much easier to set up details like time, place and age in a novel. In the film, the audience is left to guess and fill in the blanks for themselves much of the time, which can make for a disjointed and confusing narrative. And this brings us to the part of the review that applies to those who read and loved the book. Fans of Niffenegger’s version would be well advised to bear in mind that the film takes a few liberties with the source material, as most films do. It glosses over some of the big moments in Claire and Henry’s history, makes only a passing reference to others and leaves a few things out entirely. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin does his best to translate the spirit of the book, though, with the same pathos he put into the supernatural romance Ghost.
Aiding in that emotional journey are McAdams and Bana, who make for a believable couple. McAdams in particular does a fine job of portraying Claire’s wide emotional arc, from the initial blush of infatuated youth to the tired exasperation of a long-suffering wife. Bana is more steady and reserved as Henry, which is appropriate for the character, but it makes it more difficult to identify with him. Ron Livingston brings some levity to the film as Gomez, a close friend who discovers Henry’s secret in a startling way. The other standout in the supporting cast is Arliss Howard as Henry’s father, whose deep sadness at the loss of his wife and conflicted feelings about his son’s condition are palpable.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the film is the ending, which felt superfluous and tacked on. It wasn’t until after seeing the film that I found out it was, in fact, tacked on after test audiences responded negatively to the original ending. It wouldn’t be the first time a studio has intervened, but it says more about director Robert Schwentke’s faith in his own storytelling that he allowed the film to be altered in this way. Without giving anything away, the new version betrays the pathos and emotional impact it would otherwise have with a coda that adds nothing to the story. This is perhaps the biggest affront to Niffenegger’s novel, but thankfully it isn’t representative of the adaptation as a whole.
Thankfully, The Time Traveler’s Wife is not at all the frothy romance the marketing campaign has made it out to be. The presence of McAdams may bring to mind comparisons to The Notebook and similar sappy, manipulative fare, but that’s perhaps a bit unfair. Yes, this is a love story, but one that doesn’t pull its punches or hesitate to portray romance as a difficult, painful and all-too-fleeting thing.