Friday, January 13, 2012

At Long Last, The Time Traveler’s Wife Arrives As A Wonderful Romantic Story!

The Good: Good acting, Decent effects, Interesting characters, Good plot
The Bad: Glosses over a lot, Make-up effects
The Basics: Often funny, ultimately heartwrenching, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a fun film which truncates the essentials of the novel into a decent movie.

There are few books that I am blown away on the first read that they instantly enter my Top Ten Greatest Books Of All Time list and only one of them has been published within the last decade. That book was The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (reviewed here!) and I'll admit to a little bit of professional jealousy; Niffenegger achieved in her first novel what it took me three to get. That said, I've only read The Time Traveler’s Wife once and the reason was because no sooner had I finished reading it than the movie rights were bought up and the film went into preproduction and I thought, "If there is ever any hope of me seeing the film and reviewing it for only the movie it is, I must not reread the novel again!" After all, as I sit contemplating the cinematic version of The Time Traveler’s Wife, I am forced to remind readers that this is not the book, it is a movie and as such it ought to be judged independently of the novel.

That said, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a remarkable and original romantic drama that is a welcome addition to the end of Summer Blockbuster Season (and hopefully women - the target demographic for the film - will get out there this weekend and make sure that this film trumps District 9 at the box office!). Delayed because co-executive producer Brad Pitt did not want it to compete with his attempted Oscar grab The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (both films were set to be released on Christmas Day 2008), The Time Traveler’s Wife is a warm romantic vision that puts a twist on the lonely housewife with a mild science fiction premise and a strong dramatic delivery. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin adapted the novel - which was over five hundred pages - as best he could and the result is a romantic film complete with banter, Hollywood casting and true passion.

Henry is a young child when he is in a horrible car accident that kills his mother . . . only, he manages to escape the actual accident by dislocating himself in time. Coached by an older version of himself who appears just as magically, the confused child watches his mother die and begins a lonely life working as a research librarian in Chicago. One day, Claire Abshire finds herself in the library and she meets Henry, though Henry is shocked at how absolutely Claire insists she knows him. The young woman throws herself at Henry insisting she has known him her entire life and she insists that they have dinner that very night.

The dinner turns quickly into romance - though Henry is late to their dinner because of yet another inadvertent time travel incident - and soon Claire and Henry are seeing one another exclusively. While Henry works to reconcile with his estranged father, he continues to find himself in the past at moments when Claire is younger and he becomes her friend and mentor, sometimes arriving in the past frustrated with events in their future. Chief among these is Claire's desire to have a child, a problem that continues to uproot the lovers as the fetuses continue to dislodge in time. As Claire and Henry fall more in love, a shadow hangs over them both; neither has ever seen Henry older than forty, insinuating that he is either saved or dies within a few years of their meeting in real time!

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a complex story that is simplified in its cinematic presentation to such an extent that some of the elements that remain are confusing or downright pointless in the abridged version. Chief among these are peripheral characters, most notably Gomez, who appear in the film for only a scene or two, then are given strangely profound exits from the film. Henry's award-winning doctor, Kendricks, appears only briefly and Gomez is credited with being a great asset to Henry and Claire, despite only appearing on-screen long enough to be introduced to Henry, hear his story and then attempt to get Claire to not marry Henry! It is never made clear in the film how Gomez is able to be a help to Henry and this is likely to confuse viewers who have not read the novel.

Similarly, the scope of Claire and Henry's relationship in the past is so severely truncated as to make Claire's initial meeting with Henry seem more like a girlish fantasy than a well-constructed, meaningful relationship. In fact, much of Henry's time traveling occurs as montages where he simply disappears from Claire's present and she is forced to get on without him, without the viewer seeing where Henry has gone. This is often used humorously as a one-trick joke when Henry disappears from police or an older version appears in time to marry Claire when his present self becomes dislocated in time, but the fact the film is so short mortgages much of the emotional resonance between Claire and Henry.

With only three - that I recall - scenes set in Henry's past where he meets the younger Claire, The Time Traveler’s Wife is not only an example of how difficult it is to translate a novel into a film, but also an argument in how Hollywood is fearful about doing so. From the outset, The Time Traveler’s Wife would have been a challenge as many, many scenes would have forced a middle-aged man to play opposite a little girl and when one gets into child actors and sexual tension between young teens and middle aged men, this becomes problematic. The cinematic version of The Time Traveler’s Wife does this mostly by ignoring the source material; Brooklyn Proulx is cast and ably holds her own with Eric Bana as the young Claire Abshire in two scenes. A sixteen year-old Claire is included for a scene to illustrate the potential for sexual tension between them, but otherwise, young Claire is absent from the movie. This becomes a ridiculous translation to screen, then, because filmmakers knew that this was the thrust of much of the book.

Conversely, the movie focuses more on Henry and the daughter he and Claire have, which allows Henry to be more of a mentor than a creepy potential pedophile. The relationship between Alba and Henry is charming. What The Time Traveler’s Wife does have - outside of nostalgia for the book - is a charming love story that is well-acted and has a nice gimmick that is fun to watch. Those who love passion will find the quirky plot of the film to be fun and the dialogue is not stripped of all charm - which was a real fear for some viewers, like me. In this regard, the only real problem is the failure to keep Bana's hair and make-up consistent as he ages. The older Henry begins to gray, but in many of the later scenes of the movie, Henry still has his black hair, despite older, grayer versions of himself already appearing!

Moreover, while I would not have cast Eric Bana as Henry, he does an amazing job in the role. Distinctly different from his role as the monolithic villain in Star Trek (reviewed here!), Bana is levelheaded, quietly funny and plays Henry as more of a heavy than one might expect, but he makes it work. Bana has a screen presence similar to that of Christian Bale and fans of Bana will appreciate seeing him naked - only from the back - several times throughout the film.

It is Rachel McAdams, though, who comes into her own as Claire. McAdams has wonderful emotional range throughout the film and it is her performance which will sell and sway the naysayers. McAdams is funny when the film calls for it, playing Claire young and perky in her twenties when Claire and Henry first meet in real time. She is also able to carry the emotional resonance of scenes like Claire dealing with miscarriages and the attempts to keep herself serene during her ultimate pregnancy. She makes the movie worth watching.

And the movie is very much worth watching, even if it has a truncated feeling and could have been made longer, more edgy (I remember a lot more nudity in the novel!), and fleshed out the peripheral characters better. Still, it is a charming love story and one that ought to get people away from the big budget special effects flicks for a weekend and perhaps reading a book next weekend. What could be wrong with that?!

For other works with Rachel McAdams, please visit my review of Sherlock Holmes


For other film reviews, please visit my movie index page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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