by Michael Koresky
The Time Traveler’s Wife
Dir. Robert Schwentke, U.S., New Line Cinema
A concept as allegorically hefty as the one at the center of The Time Traveler’s Wife requires a melodramatic, florid treatment; director Robert Schwentke doesn’t pull his punches exactly, but neither does he completely give himself over to excess, or the poetry of fragmentation that might have made this film a more lucid love story. Of course this adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s best seller has a lot of people to please, most of whom aren’t looking for a Resnais-like negotiation of time and memory: the book’s rabid fans, New Line Cinema’s perhaps even more rabid execs, fickle opening-weekend moviegoers. By necessity, The Time Traveler’s Wife—with its mildly brain-scratching premise about a romance between Henry (Eric Bana), afflicted with a strange case of involuntary time travel and Claire (Rachel McAdams), the woman who stands by him steadfast as he disappears and reappears throughout their short life together—could never have been told in a clearly straightforward fashion, but Schwentke and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who, as writer of Ghost, evidently traffics in love affairs transcending space and gravity—and Deep Impact) manage to make it as linear as possible, skipping forward over years of courting, marriage, childbirth; only the narrative propulsion feels surreal. By design the film should float off into the ether; mostly it stays despairingly grounded.
This is both a loss and a gain: while it doesn’t seem to take full advantage of the wonder of its conceit (most characters’ reactions to Henry’s unwanted powers is a mild, almost mundane “really?”), it also retains a recognizable emotional pull that owes more to the quotidian than the supernatural. Time travel is nearly incidental in this love story—it’s both a disruption and a solvent, as he is whisked away from Claire (shouldn’t her name have been Madeleine?) at inopportune moments but pops up at other times in her life with ameliorating benevolence. The effect all this has on the space-time continuum couldn’t seem to interest the filmmakers less, as his random visitations are only located around the limited vicinity of Claire and mostly have little historical impact, only serving to make her angry, peaceable, or in one case, very rich from a lottery ticket (a dubious, audience-alienating twist, since judging from the massive country estate where Claire grew up, she seems to be immensely loaded from the get-go—a thoughtless byproduct of Hollywood’s desire for prime real estate?).
In effect Henry’s ailment—his time traveling, described by his doctor as a “crono-impairment,” comes on like epileptic fits—is no different from any other, whether it be cancer, alcoholism, or, perhaps most appropriately, lupine transformation: after disintegrating in clear view, he always wakes up naked and confused in another time and place, once in a zoo monkey cage, recalling a scene from Landis’s cheeky An American Werewolf in London. This makes him tragic but also a little absurd, and Bana plays Henry as something of a wide-eyed naïf, a strange choice considering the character’s telgraphed world-weariness: the inciting event for his condition was a childhood head-smack suffered during the car accident that killed his mother, an event he’s been unable to curtail despite returning time and again to the scene. It’s from Henry’s point of view that this story unfolds (a change from the book, which reportedly took on Claire’s voice), and this brings his struggle into sharp relief, but it also leaves Claire’s predicament vaguely sketched. Aside from a brief montage in which she is seen doing chores and working in her studio alone (she appears to be one of those kinds of artists we only see in movies, with unlimited down time, but we don’t learn much about what she creates), Claire’s loneliness is purely academic. If there had been long passages of screen time without Henry, his absence, and therefore her sacrifice, would have been keenly felt, and McAdams’s undeniable natural charisma would have had more of an emotional outlet; instead he’s hardly ever off screen.
In fact Bana is more than just the camera’s constant subject; he’s often its erotic object, his bare torso given long lingering close-ups, and not just when he’s awakening from his disrobed time trips (even his getting a haircut becomes sheer spectacle, not unlike a beauty makeover scene usually reserved for actresses). It’s a choice that might have made more sense if he had been the locus of wonder and magic, like Jennifer Jones in 1948’s Portrait of Jennie, William Dieterle’s similarly time-traversing romance that finally comes crashing to earthbound reality. Jennie provides a fairly good contrast with Time Traveler’s Wife as a film fueled less on logic than metaphor, but which gives itself fully over to poetry, substituting atmosphere for tenable narrative. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button makes for a more contemporary example, and one can’t help but wonder what a more studied imagist like David Fincher might have been able to do with this material.
The comparison to Button is also apt for the dark turn The Time Traveler’s Wife takes: like that grim lullaby, ultimately this is a film about mortality, as all good time-travel stories should be—even as it zips around so much that Henry’s first confrontation with a literal specter of death doesn’t carry the sentimental weight it should. Nevertheless, there’s a suitably tearjerking climax, set predictably in a glittering field of gold, literalizing the notion of people living on past death only through memory. It’s one of the film’s few moments that doesn’t seem as though it’s desperately reaching for poignancy, and it almost excuses the tiptoed-around idiotic central event that leads to Henry’s ultimate demise—it’s not worth spoiling, at the very least so as not to ruin the gobsmacked look on your face when it happens, although it’s fair to say the idea would give even Rachel Maddow liberal shame. Hermetic and limited in its scope (even as it rejects the laws of physics), The Time Traveler’s Wife nevertheless does have the potential to deeply move viewers. But like its main character it doesn’t move past its own conventional limitations. It’s ultimately slavish to time and narrative. But maybe that’s the point.