TV & Radio

The Time Traveler’s Wife review: Steven Moffat’s adaptation lacks the power of the unexpected

There must be something about Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, that keeps people coming back for more. There was, after all, a 2009 feature film adaptation, starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, and now, popping up in 2022, an eight-part television adaptation.

A love story where the impediment is sudden and shocking time travel might not seem like the most universal of all stories, but who can resist a doomed romance?

Henry (Theo James, a built-in-a-lab Hollywood man) is a time traveller. Not a cool time traveller who can surf the space-time continuum, chirpsing Cleopatra and murdering Hitler, but one whose time travel is random and explosive. He ends up backwards, or forwards, at points in his lifetime, naked and vomiting. “It’s not a superpower,” he announces, “it’s a disability.”

The story begins (kind of) with the day he meets 20-year-old Clare (Game of Thrones’s Rose Leslie), a woman who seems to know that, one day, she’ll be his wife.

The two Brits (both comfortable playing Americans) make for a good-looking couple, and while their performances might lack that deep star-making charisma, they are both very at home on a more diminutively proportioned screen. That said, it’s rather a shame that their chemistry is kept at arm’s length by some distracting ageing prosthetics and a rather chaste sensibility.

Let’s get the creepy stuff out of the way. Henry, through some mysterious gravitational pull, begins appearing in Clare’s life when she’s about six years old. He proceeds to visit her – arriving, let’s not forget, naked as the day he was born – 152 times over the course of her childhood.

“Why do you like brushing your horse’s hair?” he asks this minor, on their first meeting. “It’s not brushing,” she replies. “I’m grooming her.” Snap, Henry almost says.

The only thing that can mitigate the inherent ickiness of the setup, is the show’s attempt to tackle it head-on. “You have been unbearable company throughout a very horny adolescence,” Clare informs him. “Well, you know, you were a kid,” Henry replies.

There is also something quite bleak about the premise: a lonely, troubled man, flitting through his own personal history, reliving his most traumatic moments, being sick and getting beaten up at almost every turn.

“Are we the bad guys?” an eight-year-old Henry asks his older self, on the first occasion that he time travels. “Survivors are always the bad guys,” his world-weary mentor responds. And yet, in the hands of writer Steven Moffat – responsible, previously, for little shows such as Doctor Who and Sherlock – there is a lightness to proceedings.

This is not the story of a man trapped in a Sisyphean nightmare, bound to revisit the worst events of his life, but a quirky romcom about an often-naked man and his beautiful child bride. That nudity is all butt, no penis, and to some extent the show itself is all butt, no penis.

Moffat’s taste leans distinctly towards the clean-cut and mainstream, and The Time Traveler’s Wife is inflected, throughout, with the sort of zippy, young adult pacing that has made hits of shows like Stranger Things and The Queen’s Gambit

Sure, there’s an occasional and ominous pool of blood (“You’ve seen the blood,” old Henry tells his younger self as the plot mechanics rumble into gear, “You know that something’s coming”) but generally, the emotional core of the show is delivered articulately and without much subtext.

The exposition, meanwhile, is shoehorned into mockumentary portions that bookend each episode. It’s blunt, but effective.

How much you enjoy this new iteration of The Time Traveler’s Wife will depend, I suspect, on your tolerance for a romantic and comedic palette of bright, unsubtle colours.

“I’ve known you almost all my life and you’re not what I was expecting,” Clare tells Henry, when their timelines converge for the first time.

The Time Traveler’s Wife does not have the power of the unexpected. But it has a modest, formulaic appeal that will likely keep you going back (and back) for more.

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