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Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 01:51 pm

Wife’s time travels trip her up

Eric Bana as Henry DeTamble and Rachel McAdams as Clare Abshire in The Time Traveler's Wife.
It’s easy to see why Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife became a best-seller and remains a favorite among a core of devoted readers. More than a simple romance, it offers up a wish-fulfillment fantasy we’ve all harbored. What if you could go back and forth in time, seeing the loved ones you lost when they were their younger selves and meeting your children after they’ve grown and you’ve gone to the other side? This isn’t so much a story of love as it is a tale about cheating death, at least temporarily.

While the narrative structure of having the characters meet each other at various times in their lives — sometimes knowing it would happen, other times not — may have worked well on the page, its power fails to translate fully to the screen. Director Robert Schwentke does his best to do justice to the story of Henry (Eric Bana), a man who travels through time at the drop of a hat, and his long-suffering wife Clare (Rachel McAdams). The music swells at the right time, the romantic moments are softly lit, yet so many of these scenes feel empty and staged, as if they were lifted from an IKEA romance catalogue.

The problem is one of structure. The story is never permitted to build up an emotional head of steam because it’s too busy bouncing from one era to the next, never allowing the characters to truly connect. Henry meets Clare when he’s in his 20s and she’s 12 as he warps through time, ending up in the meadow behind her house where she plays. He soon disappears only to pop up in his future wife’s life after they have met in the present, having made love for the first time. Before you know it, he’s off again. The audience would benefit greatly had a plot line been provided with the price of admission.

The film follows this pattern for quite some time, offering little to explain Henry’s powers. Small hints are dropped here and there about what may cause this phenomenon or how it may be prevented, but nothing concrete is provided until late in the film, and even that employs flimsy reasoning. One could argue that being hung up on the whys and wherefores of the time traveling aspect is immaterial, but because the whole plot hinges on it, we can’t help but want a more solid explanation. I’m not even going to touch on the subject of Clare’s pregnancies, which prove complicated and nonsensical. In the end, the story raises more narrative questions than it answers and this distraction becomes cumbersome.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its share of moving moments. Ironically, none of them involve Henry and Clare. Sad to say, there’s little spark between the two leads. However, a moment in which Henry goes back to meet his mother before her death, or one in which he sees his daughter for the first time in the future, are quiet and genuine. They hint at the sort of emotionally satisfying film this could have been. These moments are grounded emotionally and narratively, unlike the bulk of the film, which drifts about with little bearing, much like its main character.

There are some interesting ideas at the heart of this film and, as the Christopher Reeve cult classic Somewhere in Time proved, combining fantasy and romance to good effect is possible, that is, provided the audience is allowed to stay in one place long enough to come to care for the characters. The Time Traveler’s Wife would have been better off had it spent more time in one place, rather than tripping through dimensions trying to impress us.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.
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