The Time Traveler's Wife (2009)

The Time Traveler's Wife is an excellent abridgment of a great novel. The novel is better, because it doesn't have to leave out any details, or skimp or stint on exploring their implications in full. The movie might have been better if the filmmakers had been able to include more of these details and implications, but on the whole, enough of the essence of the story has been retained to make it more than worthwhile to see.

The film opens just before the lead character, Henry DeTamble, first discovers he's a time traveler. He's riding in a car singing Christmas songs with his mother when a terrible accident intervenes, sending him flying through space and time in a thoroughly disorienting and frightening sequence he later attempts (over and over again) to help himself organize and get through in the best way possible.

This is what much of the film is about. If you could go back in time, what would you change? Could you really change it? What would the practicalities be? How would you deal with them? Time only ever moves forward, even for Henry, and we watch him discover what this can mean for the "big moments" in his life, to which he returns again and again helplessly, and unable to significantly alter the past--just like everybody does internally.

Eric Bana plays Henry seriously and earnestly. Frankly, I can't imagine trying to be constantly reorienting myself to the vicissitudes of the time travel plot as Bana in particular has to have been able to do as an actor to make the emotional story intelligible as he does. It's a pretty remarkable acting feat, and he was probably quite smart to realize early on that earnestness would have to be a major ingredient. As such, it's not the kind of earnestness we might cringe at in other love stories, because it's also a survival and coping strategy for his chronologically impaired circumstances.

Rachel McAdams is also quite good as Henry's soulmate and wife, Clare Abshire. Speaking of cringing at earnestness, I offer her previous love-story movie, The Notebook, as Exhibit A. If you haven't seen it, lucky! But again, a similar kind of earnestness, which turned into super-annoying schmaltz in The Notebook, works here. We also see that tested believably, as in the novel, though a little more of that might have been more illuminating, too.

Just as a sidenote, Bana and McAdams have both made good impressions this year, with a truly sparking performance from McAdams in a lesser film, State of Play, and strong, insightful work from Bana both as the villain in Star Trek and as Adam Sandler's character's rival for an old flame in the great Funny People.

There are some very good things in the book which are missing in the film. More time in Henry's childhood, more rock and roll, an extra trip in time or two to emphasize the chaotic nature of his affliction, and especially a bit more time devoted to his friendship with Gomez (Ron Livingston), which gets pretty short shrift, would have added some character dimensions which seem a bit uncertain as the film handles them. But it's hard to complain when the narrative, characters and love story are all pretty well retained.

I should say that I read the novel about a year ago, and just once, but found it to be truly outstanding, touching, audacious about its premise, and quite satisfying. The movie feels the same way to me, but I may be slightly transferring my knowledge or feelings about the story and characters in a way that is more charitable to the film than might otherwise be the case. On the other hand, my exact grasp of all the details from the novel is a bit hazy by now, so the things I suggest might have been included to good effect are things that really stood out for me in the book, and others might miss something else.

But if you're looking for a breathless love story that's not pure cheese, an interesting and complex narrative which says a lot about the nature of love and relationships over time, and great performances, The Time Traveler's Wife delivers.

8-15-09


Links for The Time Traveler's Wife

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review

Official Site

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