There are some books that were made to become movies. These are the kinds of books that feature more straightforward narratives, the ones that are more conventionally structured, and rely more on the forwarding action rather than say, the beauty of the prose or the lingering insight. Unfortunately, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is not one of those books, and while it’s easy to see why her story became such a hit, it just doesn’t translate well to celluloid. What I imagine was supposed to be an epic romance turns out to be a cinematic dud.
Henry (Eric Bana) is a librarian with a rather unique problem: he’s a time traveler. He has a genetic disorder that throws him through time involuntarily, leaving him naked and disoriented in another time. But he does have one constant in his life: Claire (Rachel McAdams), a young woman who met Henry as a child, and grew to love him as he appeared and disappeared throughout her life. They marry, and for once, Henry feels safe. But his problem doesn’t go away, and their life becomes difficult as Claire is left constantly waiting for her husband to return.
It’s a clever conceit, one that lends itself easily to several dramatic situations. But the movie just can’t handle the structure of it, so concerned with the very mechanics of Henry’s problem that not much time is left for the actual meat of the story. The romance isn’t particularly well developed, and it’s difficult to become invested in the emotions that the movie wants to portray. The time travel conceit robs the movie of much of its tension, as it reveals often early on exactly what’s going to happen. The story just doesn’t work on screen, where everything is a little too straightforward. This is a story that needed to linger a bit, to really explore the complexities of the characters’ emotions. But cinema just doesn’t have the time for that, and what we’re left with is a remarkably unemotional film.
Some of the fault lies in the direction as well, which just fails to make things feel exciting. The movie feels dreary, entirely too aware of the tragedies that are about to follow, never finding brighter moments to add the needed contrast to make the pain mean anything. Again, it defuses the tension of the scenes, as the camera, the lighting and the scoring all indicate the inevitable of the characters in any given situation. It’s a telling choice that the movie used a cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as the characters’ wedding song. Like everything else in the film, it’s a little too on the nose, and fails to give even this most romantic of moments a modicum of hope or beauty to hold on to.
Eric Bana can be an inspired choice at times, but more often than not, he tends to fall back on a couple of grim expressions. And he falls back on them in this instance, never making his character seem truly interesting enough to deserve the love of his wife. I suspect the director is more at fault here, but Bana could’ve shown a lot more. Rachel McAdams does a lot better, showing off the full range of emotion that Bana seemingly cannot. McAdams provides what little joy this movie has.
I do not discount the possibility that The Time Traveler’s Wife could someday make a great movie. But it’ll take a far more talented screenwriter willing to take risks with the structure to make a better film. And it’ll take a director with a much lighter touch, unafraid to give his tragic characters a little more room to breathe before allowing them to suffer the slings and arrows of tempestuous fate. In my head, this story has all the elements for an explosive romance. On screen, it just doesn’t work that way.