3 out of 5 stars

The Time Traveler’s Wife, based on the best-selling 2003 book by Audrey Niffenegger, centres on a librarian called Henry DeTamble (Theo James) who keeps tumbling nakedly and seemingly randomly through time, meeting people in the wrong order. The first time he meets his soulmate and future wife Clare Abshire (Rose Leslie) is when she’s six (played by Everleigh McDonnell) and he’s three decades older. Steven Moffatt’s (Doctor Who) adaptation for HBO doesn’t remove the ick factor of a little girl talking to a naked 36-year-old who’s appeared in her garden, so the power and age imbalance is something many won’t get over, even if Moffatt does his best to write around it.

The Time Traveler’s Wife suffers from many other problems. It fails to hit the sentimentality and emotional beats of either the source material or the 2009 movie starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. Moffat tones down the drama and schmaltz of Niffenegger’s novel, leaving behind the bare bones of a love story, with melodrama written like inauthentic Hallmark cards.

This six-episode first (and only) season focuses on Clare and Henry’s courtship, usually depicted in the wrong order as Henry bounces through time. When 28-year-old Henry first meets 20-year-old Clare, she’s already loved him for most of her life… which is cute until you realise Clare’s been obsessed with a grown-up throughout her childhood. She’s spent her life waiting to meet him, but when she does he’s the “wrong” version of himself. She longs for the more mature and sophisticated Henry of his middle-aged, and not the selfish and bullish guy he is now.

The book walked a fine line between the romantic notion of soulmates and the creepiness inherent in its concept, but the HBO series more often than not lands on the wrong side. The Time Travelers can only truly be enjoyed when you don’t think about it too much, which isn’t helped by the fact the couple’s ages are constantly flashing up on the screen.

The Time Traveler’s Wife emphasizes how Claire and Henry are stuck in a situation with little control, which gives Moffat the chance to explore the age-old question of fate versus free will. The problem is, there’s little that’s romantic about being trapped in a situation out of one’s control, even after ill-judged first dates and bad arguments. This is the most volatile and least happy version of Henry and Clare we’ve seen yet, as the depiction of their relationship is built around jealousy, bickering, and melodrama.

One section of the season features older versions of Henry and Clare speaking directly to the camera; a framing device that isn’t explained and merely takes audiences out of the action. Certain points in the pair’s life, especially Henry’s childhood, are also revisited too much. You’ll be forgiven for sometimes thinking you’re watching the same episode again. And those are just a few of the baffling decisions Steven Moffat makes along the way.

“Episode One” is a hard sell for anyone who’s not already a fan of the novel, although the quality improves as the episodes go on and the peak is a farcical dinner during “Episode Four”. And the finale wraps up that part of their story whilst still leaving threads dangling for season 2, which now won’t happen because HBO cancelled the show.

The casting does little to elevate things. James and Leslie are capable actors, but they don’t gel as these characters. James just isn’t as charming as Henry needs to be, so his pig-headedness often comes across as rude; while Leslie also has to play Clare as young as 16, which a wig and younger millennial clothing has a tough time selling. Their chemistry also isn’t sizzling enough to sell the romantic dialogue.

Jason David, who plays the young Henry, actually delivers the best performance in the show. He’s heartbreakingly corrupted by his adult self, as his burgeoning time-travelling is met with a mixture of amazement and fear. It’s a shame Henry grows up to be played by a slightly more wooden actor who lacks the charm needed to make a character who steals and fights endearing.

Moffatt was greatly inspired by Audrey Niffenegger’s novel when he was writing for Doctor Who, but he’s a writer not known for subtlety. The writing, acting, director, editing and even the music (a string and piano-heavy score more suited to a Lifetime original) also lean into the melodramatic in the vague hope of injecting some sweeping romance around Leslie and James’s lack of sexual chemistry.

Overall The Time Travelers Wife is funny and poignant in its best moments, but uncomfortable and cringe-worthy at its worst. A lot of the show feels overwritten and yet underdeveloped. It does a good job of pleasing fans of the book without alienating newcomers (which the previous film version couldn’t manage), but it doesn’t do enough to deliver a standout experience in a sea of prestige drama.


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Cast & Crew

writer: Steven Moffat (based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger).
director: David Nutter.
starring: Rose Leslie, Theo James, Everleigh McDonnell, Caitlin Shorey, Jason David, Brian Altemus, Desmin Borges, Natasha Lopez, Michael Park, Jaime Ray Newman, Taylor Richardson, Peter Graham, Kate Siegel, Josh Stamberg, Chelsea Frei, Marcia DeBonis, Will Brill, Spencer House & Finn Brown.