Released in the summer of 2009, The Time Traveler’s Wife is based on Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling book of the same name, which I felt was an interesting, nuanced examination of a much hackneyed subject. There was a lot of anticipation around the film, given Brad Pitt’s involvement as one of the producers – especially after the postponement of the original release date back in 2008.
The Time Traveler’s Wife follows the fortunes of Clare, (played by Rachel McAdams) and Henry (Eric Bana) after they meet in a library. However, this is far from being an everyday romance. Henry has a genetic condition causing him to travel in time – which makes it sound far more sedate and orderly than it turns out to be… Whenever he is stressed or upset, poor Henry is yanked out of his life and deposited elsewhere, minus his clothes. And that initial meeting in the library isn’t your average girl meets boy and falls in love, either. As their eyes meet, Clare lights up in delighted recognition – it turns out that she’s known Henry since she was a little girl as he regularly turned up in the meadow behind her house all through her life during his time-travelling episodes… Loving Henry comes at a very high price, however. They never know exactly when Henry will disappear – or reappear. And then there’s the unpleasant fact that Clare has never seen him any older than his early 40’s…
Throughout the film, Bana and McAdams both give solid performances and as the story winds to its climax, there are moments of real emotion. The fading palmprint of Henry’s hand on the window, near the end, is powerful and moving. However I did feel the script didn’t really give these two very capable actors a chance to really dig deep. Somehow the dialogue managed to slide over the surface of the huge subjects tackled in the film and the book. The odd touches of humour were effective, and I did wonder whether the screenwriter was hankering to turn this into a classic romantic comedy. He certainly did a real makeover on Henry, who isn’t nearly raggedly fraught enough as he finds himself continually sliding into another timeline, away from the family he loves. The supporting cast all do an excellent job and I particularly enjoyed Fiona Reid’s splendid portrayal of Clare’s tactless mother, while Ron Livingstone’s performance as Gomez is entirely satisfactory, given the limited scope of the role.
The cinematography is accomplished, with a deft use of lighting to underline the increasing sense of crisis, with the film’s settings staying very true to the book. In fact, I was surprised at just how faithful the film was to the fragmented storyline – and here, for me, lies a major problem. I found myself continually recalling scenes from the book that underscored a particular emotion or issue touched on in the film. Like the book, the film skips between different timelines. However, unlike the book, we do not have the benefit of the strong narrative voice to steer us through, while the few grey hairs Bana displays to give us a clue as to which Henry we are watching are not a sufficiently strong visual prompt. I didn’t get confused, but I have a hunch that is because I’d already read the book. I believe that a voiceover a la Benjamin Button by either Henry or Clare would have given the viewer a much better sense of the timeline and a sharper feel for the characters.
While we get the odd nod to one of the issues raised by the book – ‘I never had a choice!’ McAdams yells as an infuriated Clare – the film seems too intent on conveying a classic Hollywood ‘love conquers all’ message. Whereas the book was far more interestingly ambivalent, particularly at the end.
All in all, while The Time Traveler’s Wife certainly doesn’t deserve the panning it has had from certain directions, neither is it the real masterpiece it could have been. The limited emotional range of the screenplay and reliance on old Hollywood clichés ultimately sold the actors and the audience short.