Henry (Eric Bana) is on the job in a Chicago public library when a woman he's never met walks up to him and says dewily, "I've loved you all my life." She's Clare (Rachel McAdams), a young artist, and in her past--Henry's future--he has visited her and won her undying devotion. Henry, you see, has the gift or curse of time-traveling: disappearing from one temporal and spatial reality to pop up, naked, in another. That's a science-fiction trope familiar to fans of The Terminator, but Henry is no action-fantasy god. He's just a guy whose body has a wanderlust he can't harness. That's why, as he tells the besotted Clare, "I never wanted anything in my life that I couldn't stand losing." Of course they're destined to be each other's one and only loves.
Audrey Niffenegger's 2003 best seller The Time Traveler's Wife is so plangent a tale of fatal love, with two adorable people fighting to beat the odds against them, that it's surprising it took six years for it to get to the big screen. (Brad Pitt, who might have lent his soulful hunkitude to Henry, is an executive producer.) The film version, directed by Robert Schwentke, is soppy enough to suit the requirements of the weepie genre but with an aching solidity that allows you to surrender to its cuddly-creepy feelings without hating yourself in the morning.
Put a harsh light on the story and it's an old disease-of-the-week TV movie, if "chrono displacement" is an illness covered by the Obama health-care plan. Henry eventually learns to control his ailment, to the extent that he can lurch back through time and meet Clare when she was a child. This is a powerful device: lovers often wish they could have met their soul mates in their youth. His time-traveling into the future also allows Clare to have an adulterous affair with her own husband. (It's very complicated.) But Henry and Clare get intimations of human mortality. Niffenegger knows the secret of many a romance, from Romeo and Juliet to Titanic: that a love story is stronger if enveloped in the threat of death.
It's a familiar path for scripter Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Oscar for Ghost, and for McAdams, who applied her exorbitant dimples and loving laser stare to The Notebook. Bana, who played another wandering husband for laughs in Funny People, hits just the right tone of hangdog perplexity.
In a film era that thinks sentiment is a big silly joke, The Time Traveler's Wife may be as out of its time as poor Henry. But for viewers aching for a romantic drama that leaves them emotionally, honorably exhausted, this could prove a total immersion in star-crossed love, if not perfect synchronicity. They'll return to it, time after time.