“The Time Traveler’s Wife” is a romantic, tragic, sci-fi hodgepodge of fate. To deconstruct it with an analytical mind would be a foolish proposition, confronting material that plays with fantasy conceits to create its very own identity, free from the binding straps of realism. It’s a film that needs to be granted permission to be magical and mysterious, to take the audience to unfamiliar places of time and heart. It’s a lovely picture, but something that is best approached in a relaxed state of mind.
Since he was a young boy, Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) has been able to time travel due to a genetic disorder called “Chrono-Displacement,” forcing him to stumble through his fractured existence. Meeting Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams) one afternoon at his library job, Henry finds the soul mate he never knew he had, learning that he visited Clare in the past from the future, building a relationship with the impressionable woman throughout the years. Forging a unique bond, Clare and Henry decide to get married, though life with a man in flux starts to wear on Clare’s patience. Henry, eager to slow down his condition, finds help from a geneticist (Stephen Tobolowsky), but soon learns that no matter what he does in the past, present, or future, he can’t fight his fate.
There’s a gentle breeze to “Wife” that prevented me from standard critical dissection, where the logical mind confronts extreme imagination and goes berserk. “Wife” is a fantastical story of devotion spread across years and dimensions, and it’s to director Robert Schwentke’s credit that the picture finds a warmly enigmatic tone that wards away all the doubts and the questions. Adapted from the novel by Audrey Niffenegger by “Ghost” scripter Bruce Joel Rubin, “Wife” features a cat’s cradle of a plot, examining Henry as he marches back and forth through time, futilely attempting to shape something of a peaceful routine in the process. It’s a complex narrative structure meant to disorient the viewer, heightening the tragic aspect of the tale. The filmmakers locate the proper channels of bewilderment early on, and as more romantic entanglements are introduced while Henry and Clare get to know each other, “Wife” boils away the concern to reveal a smooth, glassy surface of moony romanticism.
For a novel-to-screen transition, there are very few narrative hiccups to distract “Wife” from the business at hand. Outside of Clare and her slightly undercooked state of shock (she’s well played by McAdams, only lacking exacting individuality in the face of surreal absenteeism), “Wife” stays on target, focusing on Henry’s unhinged routine as man who quite literally falls in and out of his own life. Schwentke (“Flightplan”) balances the disorientation and acceptance wonderfully, a bundle of emotions captured well in Bana’s poignant performance. Henry doesn’t drag himself as if cursed, he reveals himself to be more of a strategist, looking to aim his disorder to keep himself in Clare’s company for as long as possible, in whatever time frame possible. Again, there’s a lot of ground to cover in the story to help make sense of Henry’s situation. With very little in the way of adaptation clutter, “Wife” is a steady mystery and gradual tear-jerker, as Henry and Clare begin to sense a disturbing finality to their journey, leaving the couple in a frenzy to circumvent the inevitable.
Again, either you buy into this fantasy or you’ll be left out in the cold, trying to make sense out of the story’s intangible, incomprehensible qualities (not unlike the 1980 cult smash “Somewhere in Time”). “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is a mood piece on the concept of free will, smashed into the center of an engrossing, if staccato, love story. It’s beautifully crafted and endearingly old-fashioned all the way; an alluring soap opera for those who like to dive into the deep end of the syrup pool.