[14 August 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I have a genetic anomaly,” Henry (Eric Bana) tells his doctor-to-be, Kendrick (Stephen Toblowsky). The doctor looks skeptical and Henry goes on. His condition’s name—which will be devised by this very doctor, who’s never seen Henry before this moment—is “chrono-impermanence.” Uh-huh.
Henry knows this much because his trick, as laid out in the title, The Time Traveler’s Wife, is that he jumps around in time. He is impermanent in every way. He can’t control when or where he goes, he tends to take off when he’s under stress, and he’s not very good at explaining what it feels like. He is, in other words, the ideal man.
Or so you might be led to think, based on the swoony reaction of Clare (Rachel McAdams), when she first spots him in a Chicago library. She’s looking for a book, supposedly, and he’s a special collections librarian. “You told me this would happen,” she gushes, gazing at his mystified face. “And I’m supposed to normal, but I’m not really acting normal, am I?” Actually, as you come to find out, this is pretty normal for Clare, whose eyes are perpetually wide and heart ever open. Here she has to convince Henry, possessed of his own charms, that her knowledge of him is legit, and specifically, that she knows “all about” him because he’s told her himself. She knows about the impermanence and the confusion, and she’s madly in love with him anyway.
Based on Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife makes Henry’s condition literal and minimally special-effected: he dissolves into air, his expression usually sad or worried, and he travels without clothes (sort of like the terminators, though they are neither impermanent nor charming), such that when he disappears, he leaves a puddle of pants and socks behind, and when he lands, he’s naked. He’s well aware of this effect, as he has been time-traveling when he’s six, when the car his mother’s driving is about to be crushed by a truck and he bumps his head, an injury that may or may not jump his genetic defect into action.
Years of navigating such shifts in time and space have taught him one thing - he needs to know how to break into buildings that might yield new outfits, these necessary so he doesn’t stand out. (A punchline both obvious and bizarre is delivered when one outfit is strikingly “gay”—shorts and a pink top—thus soliciting homophobic remarks and a big old fight in an alley where Henry beats down the offender. Good for Henry, standing up for oppressed minorities?) He tends to travel within years close to his own lifetime and to places where everyone speaks English. This makes following his fragmented life somewhat easier than it might have been, but really, his existence is edited as if in a blender. No matter how much he tries to go unnoticed, Henry does tend to attract attention—usually from cops in pursuit, which means he spends most of his landing times on the run.
On a few occasions, he is not running, and these tend to be his meetings with Clare. For unexplained reasons, he is drawn to her at different stages of her life, “like gravity.” Their first encounter occurs when she’s just six years old, a lovely little girl who is, as she puts it later, “playing in the meadow” behind her family’s estate. She hears a rustle in he bushes, asks who’s there, and the grown-up Henry convinces her to give him her red blanket for cover. He comes out of the bushes, they chat some, and then he bids the child adieu, the camera focused on his very large hand clasping her teeny one for a good-bye shake.
The scene is creepy for any number of reasons, not least being that a large 40-something naked man has sort-of befriended a trusting six-year-old. He asks her to bring clothes to the meadow next time, he has something more substantial to wear than the blanket (“Something your father won’t miss,” he suggests). She nods, enchanted by her new very special friend. In his mind, the fact she’s intrigued rather than horrified by his disappearance makes her seem the perfect match, and so he returns to meet her again and again over the years. She’s happy whenever he comes, and doesn’t expect him to stay around.
Once they meet as like-aged adults, however, the terms change. Now Henry is no longer the magical and utterly wondrous stranger, but Clare’s lover and soon enough, husband. This transformation—not to mention her desire for a child—makes Clare fret about his absences. When he asks her to marry him, she says no, at first, though both of them know, based on reports he makes after time-traveling, that they will indeed be married. I” just wanted to try it,” she smiles, “to assert my own sense of free will.” They laugh. That free will business? Not so important after all.
Except that the question niggles at the edges of Clare’s experience throughout the movie named for her. During an argument, she accuses Henry. “You tricked me,” she says, “You came to the meadow, you forced yourself into the heart and mind of a little girl.” Understood literally, this is a disturbing relationship. It’s not so much better as a metaphor, though Clare finds ways around limits she feels Henry imposes by meeting with other incarnations of him, who pop in and out of her chronological life (no one but she seems to notice his altered self, the changing hair color or the lined v. unlined face), to the point that she starts talking with one Henry about the other Henry. It’s not cheating, she reasons, because both men are her husband. Still, it’s unnerving that she has to excuse and rationalize her way through this metaphor of a relationship.