Clare Abshire (McAdams) is six years old when she meets future husband Henry DeTamble (Bana) for the first time in her life. He is an adult and is already married – to Clare, in the future. Henry suffers from a genetic abnormality that causes him to time travel involuntarily. Some people have panic attacks. Henry has time travelling attacks. This means that when Henry meets Clare for the first time in his life, he doesn’t know who she is. There is no one first meeting for this couple – there’s never a time when they are both perfect strangers to each other. Whenever they have met, one already knows the other.
For those who read and loved Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, the trailer for The Time Traveler’s Wife was disappointing at best. It implied the film would be nothing more than a sodden mess, drawing together all of the cheesiest possible quotes and adding in some sickening scenes of people running through meadows for good measure. And for those who haven’t read the novel, the trailer doesn’t offer much by way of appeal. It makes The Time Traveler’s wife look like nothing but schmaltz, when there’s a much darker, more dramatic side to this film, from Claire’s repeated miscarriages to a series of tantalisingly, despairingly brief glimpses of how Henry will die.
As a love story, it’s convincing and compelling, and the chemistry between Bana and McAdams is spot on. As a drama, it works well enough, but is bookended by opening and closing scenes that don’t do it justice. It also skips some of the novel’s most affecting scenes, such as Henry exacting revenge on a boy who has abused Clare, an incident which hinted at a much darker side to his character, and adult Henry travelling back to visit himself as a child so he could teach himself to survive during his attacks.
This was one of the most interesting concepts within The Time Traveler’s Wife: what happens cannot be changed, but the fact Henry is able to learn spoilers from his future causes him to make those spoilers come true. And just as there is no one moment in time where the origin of Henry and Clare’s relationship can be traced, many of the events in Henry’s life also have no clear origin. They happen because he makes them happen. He makes them happen because he knows they are going to happen. He’s a human Möbius strip.
It’s difficult not to feel that The Time Traveler’s Wife could have been a bit darker, more compelling and more faithful to the book. But it could also have mangled the plot and been sickening, dull or both. It’s by no means a perfect adaptation, but it’s far more recognisable than the trailer implied, and it’s still bittersweet, funny and sad enough to be worth seeing.