Review: THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, Love Will Tear Us Apart

Rose Leslie and Theo James star in a beguiling new series from Steven Moffat ('Dr. Who').

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)
Review: THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, Love Will Tear Us Apart

Steven Moffat knows a thing or two about time travel.

The Time Traveler's Wife
The series debuts its first episode Sunday, May 15 on HBO and will also be available via HBO Max. Subsequent episodes will debut weekly on Sunday evening. I've seen all six episodes.

Before he became known for his sterling work as a writer and later a showrunner of the venerable Dr. Who, Steven Moffat honed his craft writing the teen drama Press Gang and the sitcom Joking Apart. While working on Dr. Who, he wrote and produced the brilliant Sherlock and the devious Jekyll; after leaving Dr. Who, he moved on to a new, perhaps less successful adaptation, co-writing Dracula for Netflix.

Having in mind his distinguished body of narrative television, I wondered what he saw in The Time Traveler's Wife, a novel by Audrey Niffenegger first published in 2003, that made him want to adapt it. After all, the first attempt, directed by Robert Schwentke and released in 2009, was in my estimation, "a soapy romance lacking any narrative snap; not even my abiding love for Rachel McAdams could salvage it from the depths of mediocrity."

The six-episode series begins with a snap and a crackle that tackles time travel in a refreshingly frank manner: it's a pain in the butt (literally).

Henry (Theo James) is an unwilling time traveler. He doesn't know how or why he travels through time, and has absolutely no control about when or where he will go. All he knows is that when he arrives at a new point in time, he is naked and must fend for himself, time and time again. (Be aware that we see the unclothed character many, many times from behind.)

When 28-year-old Henry meets Claire (Rose Leslie) for the first time in a Chicago library, he is already an experienced time traveler, and has settled into a life in which he does his best to be prepared for the unpredictable. On the other hand, Claire, at the age of 20, has the advantage: an older version of Henry has been visiting her since she was a child.

Like Steven Moffat, director David Nutter knows a thing or two about helming episodic television shows about time travel, notably Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles, and has a number of quality shows on his resume, including The X-Files and Game of Thrones. Within the time-travel sub-genre, some of the most affecting works have been those that deal directly with the emotional repercussions, not just clever twists and unexpected turns.

The Time Traveler's Wife succeeds, marvelously, because of Moffatt's superior writing, addressing both the mind and heart. While acknowledging some of the more potentially alarming, even squeamish scenarios implicit in the premise and its execution, Moffat nonetheless sidesteps those emotional potholes by focusing on the more important ramifications.

Continually, Moffat injects shots of levity throughout that lighten the tone and keep it from becoming overly morbid. The show is less about dealing with the inevitable than it is with the need to always rage against the dying of the light. It feels very personal, intimate, and beguiling.

The episodes are staged and filmed by Nutter in a captivating manner that is always easy to follow and is always building toward a different goal in each episode. Since the characters often age almost imperceptibly, it's a tribute to the director that it's only distracting briefly in each scene. It's a device, sure, yet it plays true to narrative intents.

Theo James has effectively played a series of characters over the years within more narrow parameters, so it's lovely to see that he is able to capture a broader accounting of an individual's development under extraordinary circumstances. Rose Leslie, though, is the beating heart of the series, tenderly conveying the romantic aches and emotional pains of a woman who must always wait for her partner to return, someday.

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David NutterHBOHBO MaxRose LeslieSteven MoffatTheo JamesUKUS

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