The Time Traveler’s Wife review – far too much ick factor to be truly great

·4 min read

Steven Moffat’s adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 bestseller is witty and well done, but it can’t overcome the novel’s depressingly old-fashioned and iffy implications

Alan Bennett once defined a classic as a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have. For a modern bestseller, the formula needs rejigging only slightly – a book everyone feels they have read, even if they have gone out of their way to avoid it. Even if Bridget Jones’s Diary or The Da Vinci Code are not your bag, you absorb so much by osmosis that it becomes irrelevant whether or not you have scanned the pages.

As such, most people know the basics of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger’s debut that – aided by a 2009 film adaptation – has sold in its millions since it was published in 2003. A librarian called Henry has a rare genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time at random, landing dazed and naked wherever the cosmos takes him. He learns to find his feet (and some clothes) a little faster each time. In the course of his many unchronological journeys, he meets his soulmate, Clare. They are wrenched repeatedly from each other’s arms to reunite weeks, months or years later in more or less romantic scenarios, depending on their ages at the time.

It is, in short, guff of a high order. But the new six‑part adaptation (Sky Atlantic) by Steven Moffat (a longtime fan of the book, which he used as inspiration for the Doctor Who episode The Girl in the Fireplace) does it proud. He takes the melodrama down a notch and salts the schmaltz with wit where he can.

Nonetheless, an emetic framing device remains. Each episode opens with Clare (Rose Leslie, joyfully channelling the spark of Game of Thrones’ Ygritte, rather than the drippiness of The Good Fight’s Maia) and/or Henry (Theo James, acquitting himself well after many years paying dues in Divergent films) talking wistfully about their lives. It is an unnecessary few minutes of marking time while they say things such as: “The future is something that turns up when you’re looking for something else,” and: “For everyone else, the past is over. For me, I’m still trying to survive it.”

Once the action kicks in, though, Moffatt keeps a tight hold on the reins. He allows Henry’s appearances, disappearances and reappearances to create a choppy energy rather than chaos. The great trauma of Henry’s past (and future, as he returns to the scene at various ages, always powerless to avert his mother’s fate) is unpacked, while troubles are foreshadowed from different angles and eras before they come to pass. James makes credible Henry’s evolution from brash young “asshole” – Clare’s word – to god among men, even if the camera panning mournfully across the piles of clothes he leaves behind every time he vanishes is always inescapably amusing. The feet thing – I shall say no more for fear of spoilers – raises similar issues.

It is a good story, well retold, but it has two intrinsic problems to overcome – and hurdles one more successfully than the other. The first is the ick factor occasioned by Henry’s many visits as a grown man to Clare as a child. This raised eyebrows in 2003 and sensitivities have only increased since. Moffatt confronts it head-on by having Henry acknowledge the viewer’s potential discomfort (via a line from Clare about grooming her My Little Pony), but a queasiness remains inevitable.

The other problem is more deep-rooted. Niffenegger’s story is built around Clare’s passivity. Her life, while not static or unfulfilled professionally, is defined by waiting for Henry. Her happiness depends on his random visits. More profoundly, her whole being and sexuality are shaped around him from the very earliest days. It reminds me more of the terrible messaging in Twilight – subsume thyself, woman! Don’t knock true love off its course by being yourself! – than an adult romance.

It is slightly depressing, chiming more with the elements of society that would like women to make themselves smaller and quieter and cede space and rights to louder others than with the elements that encourage them to strike the board and cry: “No more!” I would rather a series that felt as if it was with those who want to push us forward, rather than back in time.

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