Henry DeTamble was 6 years old the night his mother died.
Given the fact that he was riding in the backseat of her car, he probably would have died in that explosive accident, too. Except that in the milliseconds before impact, he just ... faded away.
It was Henry's first experience with time travel, courtesy of what he would later learn is a "genetic anomaly" in his brain. It saved his life—and made it a lot more complicated.
Especially when it comes to love.
Fast-forward three decades to the day Henry (now working as a librarian in Chicago) meets a radiant young woman named Clare for the first time. At least, it's the first time for him. Clare, it turns out, has known Henry since the day an older version of time-traveling Henry interrupted her solo forest picnic when she was just 8. For years she's been waiting for Henry's future and her past to catch up in the present. And now they have.
Love blossoms instantly.
And Clare is determined not to let the complicating fact that Henry frequently zips off to different times and places—an ability he has no control over—put a damper on their passion.
Marriage quickly follows.
But Henry's unpredictable time travel will test the couple's commitment to their "for better or worse" vows in ways neither could have foreseen ... no matter how much they think they know about the future.
The Time Traveler's Wife is, despite its sci-fi premise, a hope-filled love story. Henry's comings and goings—sometimes he's gone for weeks at a time—place enormous stress on his marriage to Clare. And for a time it seems almost more than she can bear. But the couple makes good on their vows despite that significant challenge, and their love for each other grows in time—including time in the future, the past and, well, just about anytime else—in this crazily nonlinear story.
If the film emphasizes faithfulness, hope and courage in tough marital times, it also places a high value on children. Clare longs for a baby, but she keeps having miscarriages. When she finally carries a baby to term, the couple proudly and gratefully welcomes into the world a beautiful daughter named Alba. A montage of images show Alba growing up, and it's clear that her parents love her dearly and deeply.
Reinforcing those positive, family-oriented themes is a subplot involving Henry's relationship with his father. Henry's abilities have strained that connection as well, and the death of Henry's mother has left a permanent wound in his dad's heart. Henry's marriage to Clare, however, helps rehabilitate his relationship with his dad, who becomes an integral part of their family.
For the most part, Henry uses his fragmented knowledge of the future responsibly. When his friend Gomez asks him about whether something will or won't happen, Henry tells him that he can't answer the question because "knowing what will happen in the future will make you crazy."
In Henry and Clare's wedding ceremony, we hear the phrase "before God." Henry's time traveling, meanwhile, is explained in wholly naturalistic terms. A doctor researching his abilities tells him, "Your brain emits a blast of electromagnetic energy right before you travel." A character tries to help a young girl understand the reality of death, telling her, "That's just what happens: We're born, we live, we die."
Henry's first sexual encounter with Clare is before their wedding. They kiss and grope; Henry touches her clothed breast and the couple begins to disrobe. Clare's bare back, rear and the side of her chest are visible when she gets out bed. On their wedding night, we glimpse Henry's bare backside.
Clare (married to Henry, and not very happy with him at the moment) has a time-bending rendezvous with a younger Henry (whom she likes quite a bit better, thank you very much).
Clare finds a woman's lipstick in Henry's medicine cabinet after they first meet, and he tells her it was from an old (apparently live-in) relationship that didn't work out.
When Henry blasts through time, his clothes don't go with him (just like in the Terminator movies). Accordingly, scenes throughout the film show Henry's exposed backside and torso as he scrambles to find clothes. An unrelated scene pictures him in a towel.
One of Henry's makeshift post-jump outfits includes short shorts and a pink shirt that's obviously a woman's. That getup earns him a beat down from a burly man outside what looks to be a biker bar. Dialogue includes a reference to the assailant being a "homophobe." Elsewhere, Clare wears a pair of gauzy pants that are very clingy. Eric hangs out with Clare as she takes a bubble bath. (Her pregnant belly sticks out.)
Henry gets shot, and we see his bloody wound in a couple different scenes. His aforementioned run-in with the guy at the bar leads to a melee with plenty of punches and kicks. Henry's mother is killed in a fiery automobile accident—an event he later tells his father that he's traveled through time to see hundreds of times. In a moment of anger, Clare slaps Henry's face.
Police officers who arrest Henry for stealing clothes slam his face into their squad car, leaving a large bruise on his cheek.
Clare's miscarriages should obviously not be considered violent content. But they are bloody. And the camera sees some of it.
Crude or Profane Language
A half-dozen s-words. Two or three misuses of Jesus' name and about 10 of God's name (including two pairings with "d--n"). A dozen or so other profanities include "h---," "a--," "a--hole" and "b--ch." "Fricken" stands in for the f-word.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A number of scenes show people drinking wine or hard liquor, usually in the context of social gatherings (at a restaurant, a wedding reception, etc.). It's implied that Henry drinks fairly regularly (we seen a number of wine bottles in his apartment, for example) until he learns that alcohol may be a trigger for his time traveling. Henry's father offers him a drink, and it's pretty clear that the older man is an alcoholic. When Henry says that he doesn't drink anymore, his father replies, "Pity. It was our one shared enthusiasm." In a desperate effort to make it back to the "present" for the holidays, Henry tells Clare that he "got drunk" to accelerate the process.
Other Negative Elements
Henry's unexpected travels leave him in a bit of an ethical conundrum. If he wants to avoid public nudity, he has to steal clothes wherever and whenever he shows up. Accordingly, we see him breaking into homes and cars in search of attire a number of times. He also steals a man's wallet in search of a bit of cash. And he teaches his daughter how to pick locks.
As a general rule, Henry doesn't use his knowledge of what's going to happen when for personal gain. There's one big exception, though: To help comfort his wife, who's struggling deeply with Henry's travels, he uses knowledge of the future to buy her a winning lottery ticket. She's initially aghast and says that he cheated, but when he asks if he should tear the ticket up, she grabs and keeps it, and the couple pockets the $5 million.
Saying he's trying to find information that'll help his time travels, Henry looks through Clare's journal without her permission.
The Time Traveler's Wife is a complex, heartstring-pulling adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's 2003 best-selling novel. As with many time-travel stories, at times it feels as if you need a chart to try to figure out whether the narrative's internal logic holds up or not—especially when two different versions of the same character show up simultaneously.
But then again, this isn't the kind of tale that you're supposed to overthink. It's a love story, pure and simple. Everyone involved is a protagonist, while the enemy, so to speak, is Henry's unwanted time-travel abilities.
Director Robert Schwentke said of the narrative arc, "It is an emotional journey about two people in a relationship, and the time travel is the catalyst for things that both strengthen and test their bond. You could argue that time travel is the thing that brought them together, but it ultimately causes all sorts of conflicts. So I saw it as an opportunity to make a great love story."
Producer Dede Gardner adds, "It's about how hard love can be but also how completely magical and wonderful it can be."
Those observations accurately capture the film's poignant, sentimental tone. But there's one other important adjective we need to add to the list: sensual. Amidst The Time Traveler's Wife's emotional resonance are scenes showcasing its stars' bodies—as Henry travels through time, and as he and Clare become more than just romantically involved.
In that sense, this film reminds me of another Rachel McAdams movie, The Notebook. Both feature nonlinear storylines that ultimately focus on the theme of faithfulness amid marital trials. Both indulge in physical expressions of emotional passion.