Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Cast: Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Ron Livingstone
Director: Robert Schwentke
Runtime: 107 min.
Verdict: A most beautiful love story. An instant classic. A masterful narration. The year’s sleeper genius.
Genre: Romance, Drama, Sci-fi

        Mr. Bana has the sort of eyes that ask to be cared. A woman might never feel even the least bit of apprehension around him. Doesn’t matter if it his wife revealing a pregnancy, or a stranger on a train, or a little girl having a little picnic by herself in the meadows. He is not a Clint Eastwood, or a Christian Bale, or an Al Pacino, someone in whose arms a woman might feel safe. Rather, he is the sort of man a woman would want to care for, and embrace him as a mother would a child. There’s that sincerity in his eyes, an almost winning earnestness. I believe he is a triumph of casting here, more so for the fact that this is one of our best actors. And in The Time Traveler’s Wife he delivers an undeniably great performance, and one I believe that will surely be forgotten within no time. So would the incredible turn by Ms. McAdams. And yes, so would the film, which I daresay hail as an instant classic, and a masterpiece of architecture.
        Roger Ebert observes in his review of Memento rather precisely the idea behind the general structure as a narrative device, or a contrivance, rather than the eventuality of an emotional state. Although Mr. Ebert, a huge admirer of Alfred Hitchcock (Notorious and Vertigo exist among his favorite films), doesn’t recognize the genius of Mr. Nolan, he sure as hell nails the problem. He mentions Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, and as I watch the subtlety and clarity of The Time Traveler’s Wife’s narration for a second time, and feel the emotional truth behind it, I realize now what he intends to convey. Yes, it is true, Mr. Nolan does harbor intentions of reigning in some kind of emotional sense in the spiral structure, yet, in many ways, it is quite obvious, and maybe even gimmicky. Okay, I take that back, it isn’t gimmicky. But one has to agree, it does betray the blatant trickery of a master craftsman trying to provide his audiences for a thrilling experience, rather than using the time-manipulation as an emotional reaction. In that way, The Time Traveler’s Wife might quite possibly be the most brilliant and commanding usage of time-manipulation ever committed to the screen. Yes, more so than Chris Marker’s sci-fi masterpiece La Jetée.
        There’s nothing obvious, nothing confusing about the narration. It is sure, it is clear, and it achieves the purpose of a superior narration – making the audience reach the desired emotional state. It feels linear, and disjointed, and non-linear, all at the same time. We walk out of the screen having the satisfaction of watching a uniquely moving love story between good folks, yet we are not entirely sure of the timeline. It is all subtle, not sticking its hand out and claiming its brilliance like the Nolan brothers’ Oscar nominated script, but quietly seeping itself into our hearts and our minds at the same time. That is something I deem worthy of a standing ovation. I applaud, for The Time Traveler’s Wife is what I seek from a clever film – not flashing its intelligence, but quietly and assuredly using its intelligence to understand the emotional truth at the narrative’s center, and then try and structure the film so as to make us feel that truth, and that emotion. This is that rarest of the rarities, a film where every shot is so brilliantly taken that we aren’t figuring it out, we’re rather feeling every bit of it. Every shot is an eventuality, or a metaphor, or a synecdoche to the whole. With films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Memento, the “clever” structure, I believe, is more of a conceit, a rather shallow (adolescent? amateurish?) jab at the workings of the mind and heart. One might even go so far as to say that the trickery in the above films probably betrays a lack of emotional understanding, and hence they are reveling in their ‘cleverness’. The Time Traveler’s Wife, on the other hand, is where and how cinema and narrative ought to be with this ‘cleverness’ – not flashing it but using it. It feels as if this film knows how it must feel like to be disjointed in time, and it is absolutely and nonchalantly crisp and clear and considerate about it. I find that most admirable, and masterful.
        How does the film do it? By shunning the typical clever film’s hierarchical teacher-student relationship, one that it seems to so naturally assume from the screen above, and by taking us audiences into confidence. Time-travel has always been a paradox, it always will be, and the best movies with the best narratives have been the ones which do not make a big deal of the logic behind it. The Time Traveler’s Wife does not sit and try to figure out an explanation, it instead takes it as a given, as an absolute, as a law of nature just about as there as gravity. A film like Memento seems to feel an obligation for time and its structure from the protagonist’s perspective, always a noble thought, but the results are a trifle amateurish. Not this one, it instead structures itself more organically, with emotion driving the narrative. It is curiously exploring the emotional consequences of such a life. In that, it can be deemed a world of alternate reality. A reality wherein Henry DeTamble (Mr. Bana) has a rare gene which causes him to travel through time. I stress on causes, for Henry doesn’t know when he might disappear from a particular time frame, and where he might appear, and when he might return. We go through life linear, he goes through life non-linear, often even encountering an alternate instance of himself. Clothes do not travel, he turns up naked in a new place, and he got to steal. He is a biological first, and like our ancestors many thousands of years ago were nomads through space, Henry might be a nomad through time. He has been one, all his life. Up until he meets a beautiful young girl in a library, Clare Abshire (Ms. McAdams), and their journey begins. I leave you to discover their love, the most beautiful and moving one I’ve seen in quite a while.
        But I shall not miss the opportunity to describe to you the beauty of the imagery, not composed through inert picture postcards (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) but with love. Every frame drips with poetry, yet it never is sugary, it never is melodrama. The irony, which in any other lesser film might be heightened for the sake of faux-art, is here underplayed, and almost taken as the work of fate. And the film is a strong proponent of fate and the unique ways of destiny. After all, what is destiny but a philosophical synonym for time. It is fascinating how so much is conveyed so subtly, and the kind of questions that are raised in such calm a manner. What are we but instances of ourselves separated through time. Does that make our instances separate persons? When we love a person, do we really love the person, or love our perception of her, a perception guided by an instance we fell in love in the first place? Not many films do that to me, but here I am inspired to buy a novel and read it in a hurry after having fallen in love with its adaptation. Such is the beauty.
        None more than the exhilarating final sequence, a masterful shot capturing the beauty at the heart of this paradox. You will know it when you watch it. And while you do, ask yourself who has been waiting for whom, and who has been coming to meet whom. Yet such questions wouldn’t distract you, in any way, from the purity of the imagery. It is, quite undeniably, the year’s best cinematic moment yet.


Aravind Ganesan said...

The Movies Like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind have set the stage for this movie to consider time travel as granted. The way I look at it is that it is the process of evolution of a thought. When such a thought is seeded, one movie needs to be conceited enough to flaunt the cleverness of an idea for the next to explore it as a matter of fact.

man in the iron mask said...

Aravind, I agree with that line of thought.

But time manipulation has existed much before either Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind explored it. Welles played with it in Citizen Kane, Kubrick messed up his mediocre The Killing unnecessarily with it, there was La Jetée, there was the Terminator movies, there was Pulp Fiction and there was Twelve Monkeys.

And yeah, most of them, if not all, were flashing their cleverness. Okay, not Kane. Kane was masterful. I cannot believe it took 50-60 years to be matter of fact about it, as I still see movies which seem to be so taken with the idea as if they were the ones discovering it.

That is why Pinter’s Betrayal is something of an achievement.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Haven't seen this one, but sounds very similar to Jones' MOON which has wonderful subtexts that are undermined by directorial choices.

Atrisa said...

I guess its goodness was judged by the fact that I did not glance at my watch the entire time the movie was on or the fact that I forgot to feel uncomfortable in those horrible E-square seats :P It could've been made to look heavy but it seems they decided on 'breezy' instead.