Review: THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE
One of the most difficult things about adapting a novel into a movie is condensing the hundreds of pages filled with story, mood, and characters into a concise and reasonable running time. It requires boiling the book down to its core themes, streamlining the plot, and lots and lots of cutting. Obviously, you can’t ever fit everything into the movie. Every once in a blue moon, there will be a film that gets it right – a film that understands the original intent behind the book and manages to maintain those key elements while offering its own refreshing take at the same time.
More often than not, however, adaptations stumble in trying to bridge the gap between satisfying fans of the book and standing on its own legs. It’s a tall order, trying to tell a cohesive story despite having gutted the source narrative to make it all fit. The adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s book The Time Traveler’s Wife never quite makes it up that mountain, successfully hitting all the bullet points of the book but never quite finding the weight to make it all stick.
The story follows Eric Bana as mild-mannered research librarian Henry DeTamble, whose otherwise-normal life is constantly thwarted by a genetic birth defect that causes him to randomly and inadvertently travel through time. Rachel McAdams is Clare Abshire, the titular wife who must not only learn how to handle the anguish and pain of repeatedly finding herself deserted, but somehow raise a family amidst a neverending uncertainty. Both Bana and McAdams are quite good in their roles. Bana brings a quiet determination and vulnerability to the part of a man just trying to play the hand he’s been dealt, and McAdams is both captivating and heartbreaking in her utter devotion to a love that fate continually wrenches from her grasp. Their chemistry together is fine too; the problem arises in how their relationship is established.
The film moves at a quick clip for its first third. After an introductory flashback in which Henry makes his inaugural time travel trip as a child, we are thrown into Henry’s life as a young librarian. He meets Clare for what will be his first time while at work, whereas the already-enamored Clare has known Henry for practically her entire life. They have dinner, spend the night together, and after some awkward exposition regarding the whole time traveling thing, the two are suddenly and blissfully in love.
And herein lies the rub – how are we as an audience supposed to care about this relationship when we haven’t seen why they fell in love in the first place? The book spends a good portion of its not-inconsiderable pagecount illustrating Henry’s lonely and booze-numbed pre-Clare existence following a traumatic childhood experience. When he finally meets his wife-to-be, her vibrance and utter faith in him is a startling contrast to his bleak and guilt-ridden adolescence. And for Clare, meeting this damaged, hollow counterpoint to the mature, deeply understanding Henry she has known since she was a child, the man she couldn’t help but fall in love with growing up – how could she do anything but love him and nurture him into the man he will become? When they fall in love, it’s the most natural thing in the world. This vital foundation to their relationship is glossed over on-screen in the interest of expedient storytelling, and that’s where The Time Traveler’s Wife suffers its failure to launch. In rushing through that integral first act, we’re never given a reason to root for this couple facing such daunting odds.
The film does pick up after about 30 minutes in, but the ensuing emotions and tear-jerking never feel quite earned. Robert Schwentke does a more or less capable job directing, hitting all the appropriate notes (despite the occasional detour into saccharine) but he’s already handicapped himself in not laying the proper groundwork. It’s a shame too, because there are some genuine moments of promise that could have worked as part of a tender, moving romance. As such, they feel more like the ornate carvings on a discarded jewelry box, whose only function now is to mask the hollowness inside. The cinematography by Florian Ballhaus is lush and the score by Mychael Danna elegant, but they cannot remedy the film’s larger problems. Instead, we’re left with a frustratingly uneven experience.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is almost an engrossing romance with science fiction trappings. Unfortunately, the core relationship between two otherwise alluring lead performances is not anchored by a compelling courtship (or really, any sort of middleground between ’strangers’ and ‘lovers’), and the film never quite recovers from its ungrounded beginnings. It’s not that it’s a bad movie, it just never becomes quite as good as it could be. Fans of the book who already have Henry and Clare’s relationship pegged may derive some satisfaction out of the film, but newcomers will struggle to find themselves as easily swept off their feet.