Timing is everything, especially when it comes to love. The film “The Time Traveler’s Wife” takes this expression quite literally.
Henry (Eric Bana) and Clare (Rachel McAdams) are in love, and have been since Clare was a young girl and Henry was, well, somewhere in his 30s. It’s not as awful as it sounds. Henry is actually afflicted with the unintentional and unwelcome ability to be yanked back and forth through time. Over the years he finds that he is drawn to many of the same places, one of which is the field behind the home of young Clare. While growing up in a linear fashion, she befriends and eventually falls in love with the nice man who periodically appears, naked, in the bushes.
Mindbending? Yes. But “The Time Traveler’s Wife” still manages to contain itself within the familiar confines of a simple love story. And a rather believable one at that, likely due to the winning performances by the sparkly-eyed McAdams and the wearily handsome Bana.
Director Robert Schwentke faced quite a challenge in converting the best-selling novel (you didn’t think it was non-fiction, did you?) by Audrey Niffenegger into a motion picture. The beauty of the written form is its ability to linger on emotion, mood and tone and allow the reader the freedom to impose their own imagination on what they think something like time traveling would look like. In Henry’s case, this involves simply vanishing, leaving a pile of clothing behind, and landing naked in another time and place.
Thankfully, Schwentke shows an impressive amount of restraint by avoiding the heavy-handed special effects that often accompany such feats in film. Instead, he allows Henry’s physical experience of the act to dominate, and the result is a simple, almost plain portrayal of a miraculous occurrence. In the end, Henry’s time travel is really nothing more than the insurmountable obstacle in a fated love story. And this pain and longing is what made the book so beautiful in the first place.
What the film does lack, however, is some momentum to the story. Yes, Henry and Clare share an undeniable - some might say destined - love. No surprise, they marry (not giving anything away here, it is called “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” after all). Again, no surprise, they deal with the consequences of his impairment: sudden vanishings, Clare’s worry, trying to conceive a child. But we are never really tempted with any kind of potential solution to the problem. Not even a hint of one, despite the peripheral character of a geneticist (Stephen Tobolowsky) who suggests some potential treatments that are mentioned once, never to be discussed again.
This thin arc of a story padded by a lovely, patient tone and extremely watchable actors in the lead roles (though a thorough waste of the talented Ron Livingston as Henry’s best friend) makes for a film that feels more like an exploration of a fascinating predicament than an epic tale about characters embroiled in time travel. Rather than scientific explanations of brain cells and the space/time continuum, the movie spends time focusing on the mundane details that most of us usually wonder about when watching a time travel story (What happens to that plate you’re holding when you jump? If you’re injured in one time, does it carry over into another?). This is the very thing that makes both the book and the film feel so real and relatable, despite the complete implausibility of the plot.
“The Time Traveler’s Wife” presents some interesting, yet simple, questions about the choices we make in love and life, and the consequences these choices present. Though traveling through time may present slight twinges of confusion (which is the most exciting part about reading the book), the film itself is surprisingly sweet with moments of unpredictable charm. It won’t blow your mind, but it will make you quite fond of McAdams and Bana (if you weren’t already) and perhaps subconsciously urge you to appreciate the people you love today, in this very moment.
‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’Rated PG-13
Opens Friday, August 14