Film Review: The Time Traveler's Wife<i>Ghost </i>meets <i>Love Story</i> meets <i>Back to the Future</i>—too much meeting and not enough emotional truth.
A shrewd screen adaptation by Ghost's Bruce Joel Rubin has put Audrey Niffenegger's novel The Time Traveler's Wife on speed dial so that the heart of her time-leaping romance remains intact while all its superfluous details and rudderless characters are jettisoned. It still is an acquired taste, as illogic often trumps emotions and, for some at least, the treacle comes on a little too strong toward the end.
A potential lure for female audiences—and smart counterprogramming against the summer's testosterone-heavy tentpoles—this New Line release via Warner Bros. should open with better-than-average numbers. Its sticking power, though, is uncertain.
Time travel is, of course, primarily the domain of science fiction, but Niffenegger's best-selling idea was to use the device to explore a romantic relationship over time, but not in chronological order. Henry (Eric Bana), a librarian, suffers from a genetic "anomaly," which gets labeled Chrono-Impairment. He can't stay locked down in any particular time but rather involuntarily slips away to other periods in his life.
Thus, he meet his future artist-wife Clare when she is six. So by the time they finally "meet for the first time," Clare (Rachel McAdams as an adult, but Brooklynn Proulx as a child) has known Henry virtually her entire life. Sounds dreadful to me, but many readers must like the notion.
Like H.G. Wells' Invisible Man, Henry's anomaly really is a curse. His time travels involve sudden appearances in the past or future without any clothes or money. Thus, he becomes adept in shoplifting, breaking and entering, tree-climbing and beating up people. Chicago police have a long profile on him but can never keep Henry in a patrol car long enough to actually jail him. "Yeah, it's a problem," Henry says in one of the movie's clear understatements.
Time travel does allow Henry, from a different age, to show up to replace himself when he goes missing. A much older Henry, for instance, is forced to fill in for his younger self at the couple's wedding. Time travel also allowed Henry to escape death at age six when he should have been in the car accident that killed his opera-star mother (Michelle Nolden). This didn't prevent his dad (Arliss Howard) from becoming a drunk.
Rubin's adaptation, however, pays little attention to Henry’s or Clare's families and friends, so their love story across time is brought into hard focus. Unlike the novel, Rubin maintains a better sense of forward momentum: The couple meets, dates, marries and struggles to have a baby in fairly chronological order—only with flashbacks of a different kind.
What one notices, though, is that they would be a fairly unremarkable couple without Henry's anomaly. Bana and McAdams make you feel the pain and the ultimate acceptance of their dilemma but never convey the magic that allows the couple to persevere through such a grand but trying love. Time isn't the only thing that keeps these two apart.
Dr. Kendrick (the always reliable Stephen Tobolowsky), a molecular geneticist, diligently works to help but ultimately might have better success with their child if Clare could only stop the miscarriages.
German-born director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) keep things moving briskly enough so that the leaps in time mostly obscure the leaps in logic. His cinematographer, Florian Ballhaus, also German-born, lights with an eye for romance, and Mychael Danna's score sometimes emphasizes its melancholy nature. Julie Weiss' costumes could have had fun with period tastes and Henry's frequent need to cover up with anything, but this is not a film looking for laughs.
There certainly are no light touches. After all, it's not easy being a time traveler's wife.