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Cinema Signal: Go! Elements of strong appeal for a wide audience.

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. "The Time Traveler's Wife"

A romantic fantasy with a concept that proves that the genre isn't entirely exhausted is unique, even if its uniqueness is derived from the world of sci-fi. I'll give "The Time Traveler's Wife" that, and a little more. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin ("Ghost," "Stuart Little 2"), adapting a novel by Audrey Niffenegger pulls off two feats, aided fully by Robert Schwentke's smart direction.

All too often, a writer will come up with a premise that intrigues but defies reason. By the end of the second act, the web of ideas to sustain and resolve it on first act terms finds itself in a corner where a resolution faithful to those terms is impossible and the writer, who should be embarassed, ends it with some crude device. It's what, in a stage play, they call Deus Ex Machina, the arrival of some god (or, rabbit out of the box) to straighten out the loose ends and the weakness of the idea. Some adaptations of Steven King's novels come to mind. This film is commendable for avoiding such a resolution and, indeed, part of the enjoyment of the piece is the writers' exploration of the clever complexities and situations arising out of the concept. That's one feat.

The second great virtue of this romantic drama is in the choice of leads. Not only does the pairing of Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana hold a high level of heat, chemistry, bonding and all that -- which the challenges of this story make essential -- but they do it with the intelligence and taste the scenario demands if it's to have any traction in a world of near-logic and credibility. A genetic distortion that makes you travel through time is a big enough anomaly to buy, but sustaining a life-long romance with that in play lies strongly in the magic and diversion of skilled performance. These two have the touch.

The one afflicted by the strange malady is Henry DeTamble (Bana), a librarian and a man of modest means in his early adult life. His first time-travel experience, when he was a child, saves his life in a car accident that takes his beautiful opera singing mother's (Michelle Nolden).

When he meets six-year old Clare Abshire (McAdams) for the first time, he's overwhelmed by her knowledge of him while he has no memory of her. He's actually her contemporary but has traveled back in time for this early encounter. It isn't long before nature, in the proper time line, takes its course between a couple so destined for each other, and having her explain that she met him for the actual first time when she was that bright, love-stricken girl playing picnic on the grounds of her wealthy father's estate.

Henry's sudden disappearances occur against his will or capability to control. He goes from one time zone and location to another with no warning. His clothes don't transport with him, so a way to cover up is his immediate concern wherever he lands up, as bare and as moneyless as the day he was born. Since he visits young Clare repeatedly, she keeps a set of her father's clothes for him in the bushes. When he lands in alien places, he learns the tricks of quickly and unobservedly picking up his essentials, resorting to violence when the situation demands it and providing amusement at times, as well. In fact, the endless variations on the theme are extremely well thought out, the sure sign of a novelest in the mix--which becomes reason enough to keep you fastened to your seat.

The visual phenomenon of him slipping away is visually realized as a sort of digital breakdown, as background pixels slowly replace his. His wardrobe falls in a heap where he had been. An inexact scientific similarity for his curse is an epileptic fit, which also comes without warning, and completely disables the individual. To further promote the idea's plausibility factor is Henry's consultation with Dr. Kendrick (Stephen Tobolowsky), whose outstanding advanced work in molecular genetics makes him the only person who can come close to theorizing the physical mechanism involved in Henry's affliction and formulate tests to study it.

The emotions that McAdams and Bana express for one another is the glue that keeps it all together as every permutation of the phenomenon is explored. Romance interruptus becomes her affliction the moment she signed up for a life with a time traveler. But even that mighty devotion reaches the straining point when, happily married at last, Clare goes through a series of miscarriages. Henry's genetic inheritance means that pregnancy will not reach full term. But, they will have a child, and the mechanism by which it occurs is yet another clever aspect of the time travel premise as it affects two lovers.

The proportions of Bana's physique is admirable, making his prowess in a fight perfectly reasonable. But his quality of sensitivity along with all the manliness, with which he turned Hector of "Troy" into an unforgettably dimensional and tragic character, makes his emotional and physical makeup work in a vital way for balancing love and laws of physics illogic.

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Happily, there's no eclipsing of talent here. McAdams is all many men would devote a lifetime to because of her radiant, penetrating beauty, an espressiveness that can bring you to your knees, the personality of a bright intelligence. In closeup, she owns the screen no less than any of the high ranking jewels of the art. The eye contact she makes with her co-star, and the emotion she expresses with it, is killer!

In other casting coups, there is the astute choice of Clare's character at six and eight with sensational ten-year old Brooklynn Proulx ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," "Brokeback Mountain"*) and ten-year old Tatum McCann for daughter Alba at Four and Five.

I have to agree with some other critics who have pointed out a syrupy (if satisfactorily twisty) resolution to all this, but I end up more in admiration for the tension in which it held me up to that point. I can be patient with a little romantic squishiness after such an engagingly written bounce around time with these two. At least it remains within the boundaries of its own concept. No Deus Ex Machina needed.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  
*[Brooklynn Proulx's mother Annie is a very noteworthy author whose novels' adaptations to movies include "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Shipping News."]

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Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Very well written, perceptive
Site rating: 8

The only part of this review that I seriously disagree with, is the writer's view of the ending. The ending is just fine. Excellent, perceptive writing, marred by numerous grammatical lapses.

                                                           ~~ John B. 



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