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‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ Review: A love story that’s almost impossible to root for

First there was Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife. Then there was the 2009 film adaptation starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana. Now, Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat brings Niffenegger’s story to HBO, with Rose Leslie and Theo James taking on the lead roles of Clare Abshire and Henry DeTamble.

Clare and Henry are in love, but their relationship is complicated by the teeny-tiny problem that Henry is a time traveler. He’ll involuntarily vanish into the past, or even sometimes the future, where he’ll show up completely naked and alone. Due to some temporal shenanigans, Clare encounters an older version of Henry when she’s 6 years old and in the years that follow discovers she’s his wife in the future. She spends her life waiting to meet him, but when she does, he’s not the version of himself she fell in love with during her adolescence.

In theory, a TV adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife makes sense. Niffenegger’s story gets more room to breathe than it did in the movie, and Moffat is even able to expand on some scenes from the book. However, the six-episode series has a hard time reckoning with this love story’s thorny complications, and its tendency to lean too hard into melodrama is just barely mitigated by committed performances from Leslie and James.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a romance that hasn’t aged well

This is weird!
Credit: Macall Polay / HBO

I really enjoy Niffenegger’s novel, but even in written form, the age gap between Clare and Henry is a tough barrier to get over. Again, Clare is 6 when she first meets Henry. Meanwhile, he’s 36 and already married to her in the future. There’s a massive power imbalance and an uncomfortable undertone to their first meetings, no matter how much Henry tries to keep the future a secret. This discomfort is elevated in a visual medium like television, which sees 37-year-old James paired with the actors who play young Clare (Everleigh McDonell and Caitlin Shorey).

Moffat attempts to deal with the power imbalance as best he can — Clare even says, “No one should meet their soulmate when they’re 6 years old” — but it’s still awkward. Early on, Henry winces when child Clare mentions she’s “grooming” her toy horse. Later, he flat-out worries that he groomed Clare, to which she replies, “I groomed you,” which… is not really how that works.

Even in written form the age gap between Clare and Henry is a tough barrier to get over.

The Time Traveler’s Wife emphasizes that Clare and Henry are stuck in a situation over which they have very little control, raising the age-old question of fate vs. free will. However, when it seems like they’re locked into a relationship no matter what they do, it’s hard to consider their story a romance.

Even when Clare and Henry meet up in the “present” (don’t think too hard about the time travel unless you want a headache), their relationship is hard to buy. Not because of the age stuff, but because they’re almost constantly fighting. Moffat sets Clare and Henry at each other’s throats early on, entirely more so than Niffenegger does in the book. Clare consistently calls Henry an asshole — with good reason; 28-year-old Henry is definitely a jerk — to the point that you wonder whether you should even be rooting for these two to stay together. The only reason you’ll want them to work out is because of Leslie and James.

Rose Leslie and Theo James are The Time Traveler’s Wife‘s saving grace

A man and a woman in fancy clothing walk down a street at night.
Rose Leslie and Theo James are a redeeming point in “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”
Credit: Macall Polay

The Time Traveler’s Wife hinges on the performances of Leslie and James, and luckily, they deliver. They have solid chemistry and manage to make Moffat’s overly quip-filled dialogue sound human.

Leslie brings a much-needed sense of energy and verve to the character of Clare, who otherwise risks falling into the archetype of the supportive wife pining for her husband to come home. As much as The Time Traveler’s Wife tends to box Clare in and completely define her by her relationship, Leslie breaks free and works to give Clare an identity beyond Henry. Unfortunately, we rarely see enough of her alone to truly experience it.

The show may be called The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it ends up spending more time with the time traveler as he ricochets between past and present. James gamely plays Henry at various points in his life, although some rough wig and makeup choices threaten any credibility about his age. He captures Henry’s charm and his rougher sides. Arriving stranded in a time that isn’t his own means that he’s gotten good at stealing and fighting, so we can sense his weariness every time he time travels and has to deal with its dangers. After a while though, this weariness translates to the viewing experience, and The Time Traveler’s Wife moves into slog territory.

The Time Traveler’s Wife suffers from bizarre storytelling choices

Throughout its six episodes, The Time Traveler’s Wife makes some truly baffling choices. There’s a framing device that involves Henry and Clare speaking directly to camera, as if they’re being recorded, but we don’t find out why. People who have read the book can probably guess who they’re speaking to, but otherwise it’s left unclear. Elsewhere, a pivotal scene from Henry’s childhood is revisited far too many times, to the point that the constant flashbacks become darkly comical. The show also makes an egregious misstep in its handling of a plotline involving sexual assault. It’s seriously, jaw-droppingly bad, not to mention completely unnecessary.

Choices like these add up until The Time Traveler’s Wife loses what little charm it had to start with. Leslie and James do their best to keep the series afloat, but it falls to pieces around them, slowly but surely.

The Time Traveler’s Wife premieres May 15 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, with a new episode weekly.

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