|Time After Time|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 06 August 2002|
Everybody has a favorite screen romance that is ostensibly about something else, from “Gone With the Wind” (Civil War, anyone?) to “Titanic” (something about a boat sinking). “Time After Time” has a plot that concerns two famous real-life Victorian-era figures – the influential science-fiction writer H.G. Wells and the serial killer Jack the Ripper – and the notion that both men wind up in present-day San Francisco. It’s a perfectly good and well-executed premise, but what makes “Time After Time” shine is its love story. The chemistry between Malcolm McDowell as the out-of-his-element Wells and Mary Steenburgen as the modern woman who sweeps him off his feet is so undeniable that it carries along everything around it.
“Time” starts in 1893 London, when a tipsy streetwalker encounters a gentleman in a top hat. Unfortunately for the woman, her new customer is Jack the Ripper. Meanwhile, in a better neighborhood in the city, writer and inventor Wells is announcing to a group of his highly skeptical friends that he’s invented a time machine – albeit he hasn’t worked up the nerve to test the device himself. Only Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), a late arrival to the group, seems intrigued. The police come by the house, seeking the prostitute’s killer, and find Stevenson’s medical bag covered with blood. Stevenson, aka Jack the Ripper, flees the scene and the century by using Wells’ machine. Wells is not only horrified by the discovery of his friend’s murderous shadow side but by the thought that he’s allowed a murderer to travel into the future – which Wells foresees as a peaceful and harmonious utopia. Wells believes he has no choice but to rescue the world to come from Jack the Ripper, so he enters the machine and winds up in 1979 San Francisco.
Of course, Wells is in for a rude awakening as to the actual state of things in his imagined perfect future, while Stevenson’s perversity and violence seem positively routine. Wells is diverted from his pursuit partly by the mistaken belief that Stevenson is dead and partly because he meets bank clerk Amy Robbins (Steenburgen), who proceeds to bowl him over with her non-Victorian straightforwardness and open interest.
Up until the introduction of Amy in Chapter 13, about half an hour into the film, “Time After Time” is simply droll and charming. McDowell, playing his first unambiguous big screen middle-class good guy here (he’d previously portrayed a lot of working-class rebels and some outright badasses, most famously Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”), revels in Wells’ twinned sweetness and stuffiness, successfully projecting extraordinary intelligence that coexists comfortably with the character’s straightforward innocence. Warner, using his intimidating height for full effect, makes what could have been a dull villain into a figure almost as much to be pitied as he is to be feared – he shows us that the Ripper is a man both driven and lost. In their scenes together, McDowell and Warner have a palpable rapport even as adversaries – we believe these men have known each other for years. This is borne out by the commentary track, where McDowell explains that he worked onstage and palled around afterwards with Warner when Warner was already a star and McDowell was a bit player. Like their characters, the two English actors were on unfamiliar turf in “Time After Time,” playing leads in their first Hollywood movie. It’s possible that under different circumstances, McDowell and Warner might still have turned in the same performances, but McDowell talks as though he believes the production situation contributed to the chemistry between the players and the scenes suggest he’s right.
If the chemistry between McDowell and Warner is exciting, it’s electrifying between McDowell and Steenburgen. They two gaze at each other as though caught between urgent action and the kind of fascinated contemplation that could go on forever – the word “enraptured” was probably coined to describe what we see here. In Chapter 17, Steenburgen’s Amy seems so overwhelmed during a public lunch that she seems ready to burst while making small talk – McDowell explains on the commentary track that just before the scene was filmed, he’d told Steenburgen for the first time that he loved her. There are plenty of movie romances with bigger sweep and scope, but few if any have this kind of inarguable, transcendent emotion. We feel like we’re watching two people falling in love because that’s precisely what we’re seeing. Again, maybe McDowell and Steenburgen could have acted it without feeling a thing and the scenes would still be beguiling, but “Time After Time” has an air to it that isn’t quite like any other movie – there’s something about the juxtaposition of the absolute fantasy of the plot mechanisms with the urgency and intimacy of the acting that sets it apart.
It helps that director/writer Nicholas Meyer has given the characters some delightful dialogue exchanges that draw us in ever deeper, and San Francisco looks gorgeous, with just the right mixture of exoticism (to Wells’ bewildered eyes) and mundanity (for the audience). The widescreen print transfer is handsome and mostly very clean, although there’s a bit of picture glitter on Wells’ tweed suit in Chapter 14 and a few old-looking shots in Chapter 15. Don’t freak out about the white lines in Chapter 8, though – they’re part of the time-travel effect.
The special effects in “Time After Time” are relatively few, important to the storytelling but not the film’s main selling point. For the most part, they look like better-rendered versions of old “Star Trek” TV effects (aptly enough, Meyer went on to direct “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”). Gore is at an all-time minimum for a story in which Jack the Ripper plays a principal role – a brief shot of splashes of blood on a wall and a severed hand are as extensive as it gets. This reviewer likes blood as much as the next hard-core horror film fan, but in this instance, discretion suits the overall tone.
The stereo surround sound is very good, although there’s a bit of abrupt level-shifting in Chapter 14. The best effects can be found in Chapters 31, 32 and 33, with police sirens that move right to left, realistic tire squeals and finally a very authentic echo in a vast outdoor space. The balance between dialogue, ambient effects and music score is handled very well. The commentary track is two-channel, with Meyer seeming to reside in both main speakers, while McDowell favors the right. It is invaluable and illuminating, although there are long stretches where the pair are mutually silent and the soundtrack comes up full – Meyer at one point admits he’s so caught up in watching the movie again that he’s forgotten to speak.
A word here about the Miklos Rozsa orchestral score: Meyer goes on at length about his love for the huge, old-fashioned, melodramatic music, so there’s no question that it’s part of his vision, but the score often tends to overstate the emotion of scenes to the point of nearly swamping them, at odds with the overall lighter touch of the material.
“Time After Time” has its flaws – some story details are a bit fuzzy (we really should get a brief clip of Stevenson faking his death instead of having to surmise what’s happened) and a crucial bit of staging at the end gets fudged. However, neither minor complaints, multiple viewings nor the passage of time can erode the film’s ultimate sense of enchantment. “Time After Time” is a timelessly lovely love story.