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The Time Traveler’s Wife

Mostly Satisfying

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Directed by Robert Schwentke (Flight Plan, The Family Jewels, Tattoo) and adapted by Bruce Joel Rubin (Deep Impact, Jacob’s Ladder, Ghost) from Audrey Niffenegger’s 2004 bestselling novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife blends or borrows elements from Slaughterhouse Five, Somewhere in Time, and The Notebook. Heavy on romance and light on science fiction, the film offers few narrative surprises and, for some, occasional befuddlement but what it does offer is unobtrusive direction by Schwentke and warm, engaging performances by Eric Bana as the time traveler of the title and Rachel McAdams as the time traveler’s wife.

The Time Traveler’s Wife focuses on the relationship between Henry DeTamble (Bana), a research librarian who's also a time traveler, and Clare (Rachel McAdams), an artist who becomes his friend, lover, and wife. At six, Henry’s ability, later explained as a genetic anomaly a research geneticist dubs “Chrono-Displacement", manifests itself for the first time, saving him from an accident that takes the life of his opera-singer mother, Annette (Michelle Nolden). When he jumps forward or backward in time, he leaves his physical possessions -- including his clothes -- behind. While he’s developed the skills necessary to survive without any resources (e.g., picking locks, breaking and entering), he repeatedly returns to a meadow where he encounters Clare at different times in her life: as a young girl, a young woman, and as an adult.

Henry’s time traveling ability, however, has its limits: he can’t travel to any time before his birth and, presumably, any time after his death. He travels between and to specific “anchor” points in his past and future, but never learns to control his ability. Henry’s ability doesn’t allow him to change the past, but he can interact with his past and future selves (the adult Henry first appears to his six-year self moments after his time traveling ability manifests itself). Stress seems to trigger time travel, as do alcohol or other forms of excitement, but jogging helps to decrease it. Henry, however, ages along a normal, linear path from a young boy to a man in his late thirties. He “first” meets Clare in his late twenties. Clare, however, has already met Henry. She met an older Henry as a young girl on one of his time-traveling jaunts that leaves him naked and using trees and bushes as cover.

All this, however, is a science fiction plot device used as metaphor for romantic relationships -- for real and imagined distances between the partners in a relationship. In the case of Clare and Henry, they’re limited by Henry’s inability to control his time traveling gene that, in turn, makes their moments more meaningful together for their fleeting nature. The Time Traveler’s Wife raises the emotional and dramatic stakes when Henry and Clare briefly glimpse a future Henry seriously injured (thus bringing mortality into the foreground) and Clare, despite several miscarriages and Henry’s fear that he’s passed on his genetic anomaly to their offspring, presses forward with having a baby.

For all the heavy “life-events” The Time Traveler’s Wife emphasizes (e.g., birth, death, marriage, etc.), it’s not without the occasional moment of verbal or physical humor -- specifically, humor centered on Henry’s uncontrollable time traveling. In one scene, he’s forced to wear women’s clothing or during Henry and Clare’s marriage ceremony, when Henry, naturally nervous, disappears, only for another, noticeably older Henry to appear to take his wedding vows for him. The most affecting moments, however, involve Henry and Clare’s daughter, Alba (Hailey McCann) who can, as Henry fears, time travel but who may have more control over time travel than he ever did.

Premise and story aside, The Time Traveler’s Wife benefits from the absence of a heavy-handed, emotion-wringing orchestral score (Mychael Danna provided the score), the restraint Schwentke generally shows during the emotion-wringing moments, and Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as Henry and Clare. While Bana shows obvious strain in maintaining a Midwest accent, McAdams proves (as if proof was necessary) that she can handle a broad emotional range, each of them as genuine and grounded as the last. While The Time Traveler’s Wife probably won’t win any major awards (or even receive any nominations) next spring, it succeeds as a mostly satisfying mix of science fiction and romance.