Movie Review: ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ Proves Faithful

1 Sep

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cinemagrade b Robert Schwentke’s adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s sci-fi drama The Time Traveler’s Wife both improves and dillutes its source material in almost equal measure. The result is a good movie–probably working better for starry-eyed romantics than logic-based sci-fi fans–that eludes greatness by playing it just a little too safe. However, navigating Niffenegger’s tangled and thought-provoking melodrama couldn’t have been easy and I’m grateful that the German director drew from it this sweet, sensitive and occassionally beautiful little movie.

Demolishing similarly themed films like The Lake House, Time Traveler’s Wife finds just the right note to transform this unlikely tale of a Chicago librarian with a genetic disorder into a grounded romance about life’s unpredictability and the strength a marriage requires to weather such uncertainty. More of it feels real than unreal, and the fantastic device at the center of the story–the time traveling ability of Henry DeTamble–is folded into the film’s structure in such a way that is isn’t anymore distracting than a flasback in a more typical drama would be. With all of these pains to render the surface of the film mundane and ‘normal’, Schwentke and company end up downplaying the questionable science of Henry’s dillemna (it’s a very strange genetic abnormality to be occassionally, and physically, rocketed through time without warning) and playing up both the benefit it has and harm it does to Henry’s relationship with his true-love Clare Abshire. With Eric Bana as Henry and Rachel McAdams as Clare, the central roles are in good hands and Schwentke constructs a lyrical and visually sumptious love affair that isn’t held in check by the typical concerns of time and space.

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The movie begins with a car accident that claims the life of Henry’s mother when he is very young. This is the first time he becomes aware of his ability. One minute the little boy is sitting in the back seat of the car, and the next he’s fading out, a little bit at a time, until he has disappeared. One moment later he is standing on a snowy bank outside of the same scene and watching a truck smash into his mother’s car. Distraught, confused, and without his clothes,the little boy is met and then comforted by a man who shows up seconds after he does. This is older Henry and he tries to explain the situation to his younger self. Alot of the movie is like this; looping back and forth on itself, although a great deal of it is told in a chronological, forward-manner. Upfront the filmmakers are trusting the audience to keep up.

And it isn’t hard; as mind-bending time-travel conceits go, this one is rather tame. Henry travels involuntarily to places in his life that are (or will be) significant to him, and he arrives each time without clothing and no ability to trigger his return. Just like the jump itself, going back happens when it happens. The movie, like the book, takes the time to show the emotional toll this takes on Henry and Bana gives a nice, reserved performance that can become unhinged at the right moments. When he travels, he arrives nude and must go foraging for clothes, and then most of the rest of his time is spent running, depending on where he’s landed. When he ends up in a field and meets a little girl who gives him a picnic blanket to cover up in, it’s Clare, and he already knows her; has already met her and fallen in love with her. For her though, Henry’s continuous travels to that field, several times over her growing up, cause her to fixate upon him. When they meet as adults she has been carrying a torch for him for a long time, and he has never met her–has in fact been drinking to stave off lonliness, unaware that alcohol may make the jumps more frequent.

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The film avoids anything creepy in Henry’s visits in the field, but it also eschews the drama that came with Clare’s conundrum. Did she ever have a choice in this matter? Was she duped into loving Henry via his friendship to her when she was young?  And now she is married to a man with whom she might not be able to have children (there is a genetic issue causing miscarriages) and she feels trapped. However, when she approaches him years later in the library and forwardly makes advances on him, isn’t she causing the emotional connection that ultimately transports him to the field where they meet? The movie touches these ideas, but does not pick them up. It’s more interested in exploring how Henry and Clare will weather growing elements that are not of their choosing. Internal strength belongs to Clare, not Henry, and that’s strange because Bana typically portrays the former so well. Here, McAdams is creating the portrait of a woman that loves her husband so much that all of the resulting tragedy and triumph associated with his ability is magnified to a point that is hard to take. Bana keeps getting slingshot back and forth through the plot, so it seems like we don’t get to connect as muchwith him. However, he’s in almost every scene so it works in his favor when he mutes the performance a little.

I really enjoyed the suppporting cast that includes the always effective and welcome Ron Livingston as friend to Henry and Clare. He makes a nice foil, and is a sturdy fixture in later scenes when things get harrowing for Henry. Arliss Howard also does nice work as Henry’s father. He isn’t in many scenes, but again, he roots the scenes he shows up in. I think the choice of supporting characters is linked to the construction of the time travel scenes. Everything around Henry is made familiar to the viewer. We know the lay of the land even when he does not. If we see something coming long before it arrives, quite often that is the intent of the movie.

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I loved the soundtrack and the inuitive use of music in generating an emotional landscape for Henry and Clare’s relationship. My favorite moment is when a version of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart plays after their wedding. It strikes an ironic tone; love is the force keeping them tethered through each trial, but in another sense, the very presence of their care for one another makes each hurt possible. It isn’t a belabored point, just something dropped gently into the background.

Visually, I like the film’s pastoral beauty. The interiors of houses, the library, and the picturesque field all strike up an inviting and sumptious setting. It draws us further into the movie and so do McAdams and Bana, who have a curious chemistry even though the movie holds their romance at an arm’s length. If it had found a way to bring them closer together, and into one another’s orbit a little more, it might have been a masterpiece. As it is, it’s a film that really feels the heartaches and joys of life with a loved one, and what’s there is honest.

It isn’t often that qualities like that show up in a romantic drama, and less often are they portrayed in such a positive light. Best of all, the film marries science fiction thoughtfulness to chick flick passion and the result is a great date movie. Take someone you care about and enjoy it for what it is.

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One Response to “Movie Review: ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ Proves Faithful”

  1. Stephen Davis February 10, 2010 at 6:12 pm #

    I would like to know the name of the artist who did the picture of the folded newspaper ( looked like a bird in flight ) on the wall that I guess was supposed to represent the artwork Claire was into making.

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