There’s a really sweet idea at the core of The Time Traveler’s Wife which is about the idea that we all come to a committed, loving relationship with our own individual baggage, but also we are approaching the union from different perspectives which are constantly always shifting. In order to make it work, there’s a need to understand that partners have needs and experience challenges that can be different from our own.
But there’s also something really gross and unsettling at the core of The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is that the entire relationship of our central protagonists is built on a really uncomfortable emotional grooming. Our time traveler first meets his titular wife as a young girl (he is in his mid-30s at this stage in his life) and continues to meet with her a hundred plus more times as a child, establishing a love bond. The show waves it away as destiny that can’t play out any other way, but what was perhaps seen as a lovely and romantic story quirk when the book The Time Traveler’s Wife was based on was published in 2003, today in 2022, it gives me the heebie jeebies.
The premise of The Time Traveler’s Wife is that you have a guy named Henry who has been able to travel in time since he was a young child. The problem is that it is involuntary and he can suddenly travel without any notice. Plus when he travels, he leaves behind the clothes he was wearing and arrives in the new time and location naked. A lifetime of doing this means he has gotten very good at fighting - it seems people are ready to get into a biff when a naked dude turns up unexpectedly, great at stealing clothes, and quick to adapt to new situations.
But the story isn’t really told from Henry’s perspective. Instead we see the story, kinda, through the eyes of Clare. His wife. She first meets him when she is a young girl. A mature-aged version of Henry comes to visit her, naked. They form a friendship and he visits her many, many, many times in the years to come. Clare, once older, goes off to university where she meets Henry for the first time with her as an adult. She knows that they are destined to marry, which freaks a 28 year-old Henry out when she tells him. Henry at this age is not the worldly man that she had met and fallen in love with as a six year-old.
Why would the grown Henry even want to meet his future wife so many times as a youngster? It is just icky.
Now, if you can get brush-off that awkward element of the plotting, as the show itself does with a quick joke, what you’re left with is a mature, funny, and mostly charming story about the pressures on a relationship under a very unique strain. This is the best I have seen Rose Leslie on screen - she’s an atom bomb of charm, that one. I don’t know co-star Theo James, but he’s also rather compelling to watch on-screen and he handles the differences in performing as Henry at different stages of his life in what feels fairly authentic.
The show is written by Steven Moffatt, who not only has time travel storytelling experience from his time on Doctor Who, but as evidenced in his writing from the very beginning with Press Gang, but also through a lot of his work since then - notably Coupling - he is no stranger to telling stories from different perspectives in a non-linear manner. With The Time Traveler’s Wife, he is no stranger to the complexities of this sort of story and he handles it all exceptionally well.
Not up to the challenge of the show is series director David Nutter who helms all six episodes. Under his direction, the show has the same feel as a network TV drama from the late 90s. It lacks visual sophistication and looks no better than, say, an episode of Felicity. This isn’t to say that the show isn’t competent, but the journeyman director doesn’t elevate his craft to meet the challenge of the material. It holds back the show from being a great show. Instead, it is merely just pretty good.
Lacking in the show is any real chemistry between Rose Leslie and Theo James. And I do wonder whether that chemistry might have been there under a different director. While I like Leslie, I do find that she very rarely demonstrates a strong sense of heat with any of her co-stars, so it may not entirely be Nutter’s fault.
Overall, this is a very watchable, certainly charming TV drama that is certainly far more mature in sensibility than a lot of romantic comedies, even if it does have this fantastical element of time travel involved.
The Time Traveler’s Wife debuts on HBO Max in the US May 15. It streams in Australia on Binge.