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The Time Traveler’s Wife

Director: Robert SchwenteStarring: Rachel McAdams, Eric Bana

Director: Robert Schwente
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Eric Bana

In her 2003 bestseller The Time Traveler’s Wife, the first-time novelist Audrey Niffenegger struck upon a perfect literary device to portray the distance and separation that can infect and undermine a relationship. The heroine, Clare Abshire, is in love with a man who is not only not always on her wavelength, he is not always in the same time period. Owing to a rare genetic disorder (so rare, it’s fictional), Henry DeTamble really does travel through time. Clare can be hugging her beloved one minute, making love to him even, airing her preoccupations and pouring out her emotions, and the next moment he could be gone. Clare is left staring at a limp bundle of clothes as Henry, against his will and unannounced, vanishes into the past.

Although this may sound like the fantasy of a commitment-phobic male – imagine being able to slip away when things get too profound, huh lads? – The Time Traveler’s Wife fits more snugly in the genre of chick lit. It is a tale of star-crossed, fate-bedevilled partners, where the path of true love must bridge the space-time continuum, no less.

What sets it apart from other efforts on the shelves of pastel-covered flim-flam, however – and the principal reason that The Time Traveler’s Wife is now a major film, starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana – is the possibilities presented by this conceit for an investigation into predestination and free will. Henry tends to appear in the presence of Clare at regular periods in her life, starting when she was only six years old and in the garden of her family’s estate. The book manages to sidestep the queasy aspects of a man appearing naked from the woods in front of a young girl, but it at least flirts with the question of whether she had any choice but to fall in love with the enigma. He visits her, romances her, and then departs, when she is too young to be in full possession of her infatuations.

The adult Henry is Clare’s childhood crush, her teenage ideal, her first serious boyfriend, and then her husband. She becomes his widow too. Conveniently, the breadth of this story satisfies a host of readers’ markets, and Niffenegger’s novel struck chords in women of all ages, who bought it in droves.

The faithful screen recreation is likely to satisfy fans of the book and leave its detractors unmoved, but be largely baffling to those with no prior knowledge of the source material. In other words, Robert Schwentke’s movie addresses none of the novel’s failings but essentially retains its heart-wrenching credentials, if you go for that kind of thing. It skims past any scientific issues (only marginally more expounded in the novel) and several minor characters suffer at the screenwriter’s axe. But really this is the same story of a self-absorbed rake ruining the life of an otherwise capable woman, who inexplicably falls for his transparent charms.

Although this sounds harsh on what is a love story that gripped thousands, The Time Traveler’s Wife doesn’t really work on any level if you cannot see the attraction in Henry, and the odds are cruelly stacked against Bana in his attempts to bring him off his pedestal and into humanity. Like mirrors to slimmers, a cinema screen does no favours to the flabby and Henry’s overwrought dialogue becomes even more pompous when spoken aloud. He is incapable of talking in anything but horrible cinema-gravitas, clipping every sentence to end on its most dramatic beat. Listen out for the unintentional comedy highlight: the line “I had a vasectomy,” intoned as if in the trailer for an action flick.

McAdams battles more gamely with Clare, but just as in the book, we are told far more regularly than we are shown how perfect a couple they are. There’s not much visible chemistry and despite supposed careers in the arts and university research, they share few moments of intellectual connection; it’s soft focus and teary eyes all the way.

Even more frustrating is the apparent unwillingness to explore fully those philosophical and existential themes. The moral here seems to be no more complex than: “Time travel can break your heart.” Thanks. I’ll keep it in mind.

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