There are lots of movies about time travel, from the asinine Land of the Lost to the political The Time Machine and Sleepers, to the edgy Time Bandits and 12 Monkeys. Most of those have a gizmo or contraption that causes them to travel through time, but what if you just “hopped” without having any control over it? One minute you were in contemporary Manhattan then in the blink of an eye you were in Los Angeles in the middle of a Vietnam war protest march?
That’s the basic concept behind The Time Traveler’s Wife, based on a tremendously popular book of the same name written by Audrey Niffenegger. The story wrestles with what it would be like for a time traveler to establish and sustain a relationship, all the while knowing that at any moment he could vanish and reappear minutes, hours, or weeks later.
The problem I had with this movie, though, was that while it was very well assembled and acted, I kept wanting to know why and how Henry DeTamble (the handsome Eric Bana) was able to travel through time. There are so many paradoxes related to time travel that were just brushed under the proverbial rug that while the film progressed, I kept waiting to “get it” and never really did.
The core paradox with time travel is whether there are multiple future realities or not: if there are, then traveling back in time can affect your own existence. If there’s only one reality and you’re but an observer, how can you actually interact with anyone else in the past, let alone have ongoing relationships with them? It’s a causality thing (and yes, I know I’m being totally right-brained in this concern!)
The story is about Henry bouncing back and forth through time, first meeting up with the wealthy but apparently lonely and sheltered Clare Abshire (played as a child by Brooklynn Proulx and as an adult by the gorgeous Rachel McAdams) when she’s six and he’s an adult. Then he weaves in and out of her life knowing that they meet and marry (or does he create the idea in her mind that future Henry is her perfect match, thereby influencing the future?). Oddly, she is not bothered by this or creeped out by this adult man who sporadically pops out of the woods by her house, stark naked, wanting to spend time with her.
Romantic? Yes. A bit disturbing as the father of two young girls who would not be too happy if they were filling their diaries with pictures of a strange adult man and fantasizing about marrying him some day? Definitely. Worth seeing anyway as a summer romance film? Maybe.
Henry works as a research librarian at a public library in Chicago, though presumably he has frequent absences from work as he time travels without any ability to control it. His travels all seem to be somehow related to his own history, however, and indeed at one point in the film he observes “I often go back to the same places, to places that are important to me, it’s kind of like gravity or something.”
But for me, I couldn’t shake the disturbing relationship between the adult Henry and the child Clare. When he first arrives, she’s playing in a meadow quite a long ways from the family estate (Clare is an only child and her parents are quite wealthy) and she is quite reasonably startled to hear a voice from out of the bushes. She hands him her picnic blanket and he comes out, wrapped only in the blanket and clearly naked underneath. As you would hope, she says “I should tell my parents about you!” to which Henry responds “wait, don’t call your parents” and then encourages her to steal clothes from her Dad “that he won’t miss” and leave them in the forest for him. She does, and that’s supposed to be romantic? To me, that’s alarming, not romantic at all.
There are some very nice scenes in the film, however, including one touching moment when Henry travels back in time to when he was three and meets his mother Annette (played by the exotic Michelle Nolde) on the L, Chicago’s elevated commuter train system. After a short exchange he looks at her and says “Your son loves you very much” to which she responds “I know.” and vanishes as he stands on the platform watching her.
With younger and older Henry showing up throughout the otherwise linear narrative of the film, a number of interesting questions are raised and, occasionally, addressed by the supporting cast, including the warm best friend Gomez (Ron Livingston). Minutes before Clare and Henry get married, Henry vanishes, but then an older Henry appears for the ceremony. Did she marry contemporary Henry or future Henry and if so, are there any implications? A cool dilemma unexamined in the film.
During their first dance at the wedding, the band plays a song by Joy Division called Love Will Tear Us Apart. A curious choice, especially with the lyrics: “When the routine bites hard, and ambitions are low, and the resentment rides high, but emotions won’t grow, and we’re changing our ways, taking different roads, then love, love will tear us apart” It seemed to suggest that there would be conflict between Henry and Clare about his constant time traveling, but that was downplayed to the point where I was astonished by how little the rest of The Time Traveler’s Wife characters were surprised or curious when Henry would vanish or suddenly appear, naked, in their midst.
Ultimately The Time Traveler’s Wife was a well-assembled romantic film about how love overcomes all challenges, but it left me empty and unengaged, frustrated that the basic hook was not used in a more interesting fashion or that Clare and the rest so quickly got bored with what would be an astonishing capability, rife with different narrative directions that director Robert Schwentke could have taken, but didn’t. And that’s too bad.