A man in his 40s forms a secret relationship with a six-year-old girl he intends to marry. The first time they meet, he’s hiding naked in a bush. This may sound like the opening to an episode of 24 Hours in Police Custody. But in The Time Traveler’s Wife (Sky Atlantic), it’s the basis of a cute romcom.
Did we not notice how iffy this was when Audrey Niffenegger’s novel came out in 2003, and became a runaway bestseller? Perhaps it didn’t read so weirdly. But on screen, in a production that won’t let 10 minutes pass by without yet another shot of Henry’s buttocks, it feels very wrong.
Fortysomething Henry was visiting young Clare from the future, in the knowledge that one day they would be husband and wife. Henry has a genetic condition which means that he pings through the space-time continuum without warning. For no discernible reason, this involves him losing all of his clothes. Steven Moffat, the ex-Doctor Who showrunner who adapted this, inserts the word “naked” into the script so often that it starts to feel creepy.
He also knows that the age gap aspect is uncomfortable, because he attempts a joke about it. Six-year-old Clare is brushing the hair on her toy pony. “I’m grooming her,” she explains. “OK, moving on,” says James hurriedly. Later, adult Clare says that it was unbearable to receive visits from “perfect gentleman” Henry through her “very horny adolescence”; when they finally have a sexual encounter (she’s 28 by now), she strips down to her bra and asks: “Haven’t I grown?” Eww.
The leads are two Brits playing Americans: Theo James (Sanditon) and Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones). James’s job is to look good naked, and not much else. Leslie plays one of those terrible, sassy-but-soft-hearted romcom heroines. It plays out like a passable Channel 5 daytime film, not a supposedly prestige series from HBO. The adaptation is so lazy that episodes begin with the lead characters reading lines straight into the camera, rather than anyone making the effort to work them into the script.
The hair and make-up people have solved the problem of how to show us the difference between younger and older Henry: for the former they give James some bad hair, and for the latter they paint him an odd grey colour, as if being mid-40s is a heartbeat away from the grave. But the styling is the least of this show’s problems.