When a friend of mine was little, she thought that all films were made in the time in which they took place, so The Rocketeer (1991) would have been filmed in the 1930s, as would Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Film is like a time machine in that way, such is its capacity to make vivid the unfamiliar past, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable for her to have believed so. Since its inception, the cinema has taken us out of the present – today we can literally watch street scenes from a century ago, while audiences in 1902 could see the then dream of space travel in Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. We can be emotionally transported into different times and places by moving images in a way that other media finds hard to match. Films can render the weight of time absent – with a simple cut, locations can change in the space of a scene, and mistakes can be rectified with another take. In perhaps the most famous edit in film history, in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), several millennia of human evolution are leapt in a single frame, as the bone thrown by the prehistoric ape-man suddenly becomes an orbiting space ship. When people talk about ‘life flashing before your eyes’ during near-death experiences, it sounds suspiciously like a montage – and what is film itself but a series of still images frozen in time, then projected to give the illusion of movement.
Hollywood cinema has long used these time-bending qualities to serve up adventures and thrills, but time has also been looped in pursuit of love. There are ghostly variations on this theme of course, but when characters actually travel through time, whether through magic or technology – or occasionally, supernatural ability – they are often on the lookout for romance or on a mission to fix their future, or present. In films like Berkeley Square (1933) and Somewhere in Time (1980), characters travel back in time and fall in love with tragic consequences. More recently The Time Traveller’s Wife (2009), an adaptation of the Audrey Niffenegger novel, told the story of Henry (Eric Bana), a man with a genetic disorder that makes him travel in time uncontrollably, causing much distress to himself and his wife Clare (Rachel McAdams). Clare and Henry first meet when she is a child and their love story dances around her linear timeline.
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Strangely, Rachel McAdams has played the wife or partner of time travellers on three occasions. She is Mary, again a time traveller’s wife, in About Time (2013), in which her husband Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) has another inherited time travelling ability, except unlike Henry he is in complete control of his time-hopping. Tim says that, for him, time travel was “always going to be about love” and he uses his ability to pursue Mary, picking up on her likes and dislikes so he can anticipate them, and replaying their first sexual encounter several times. This raises some uncomfortable questions about consent, but in the end Tim eschews anything epic or exciting in favour of using time travel as a kind of mindfulness. Mary, like Clare, is stuck firmly in the present. In Groundhog Day (1993), Phil Connors (Bill Murray) uses some of the same tricks in his quest to win Rita (Andie MacDowell), but unlike Tim, Phil must replay his time loops and is doomed to repeat each day until he perfects it, and becomes a better person by doing so. Midnight in Paris (2011) sees Gil (Owen Wilson) on holiday with his fiancee Inez (McAdams again) when he finds himself transported magically back to the 1920s where he gets to hobnob with literary figures and falls for Adriana (Marion Cotillard). In his present, Gil finds Adriana’s now time-worn diary and uses it to anticipate one of her fantasies the next time he travels back to her. In an unexpected turn of events, both Gil and Adriana are transported from the 1920s back to the 1890s where, refreshingly, Adriana elects to stay and Gil returns home to the present.
But Adriana is a notable exception, for typically in cinema’s time-travelling romantic fantasies women seem to be stubbornly stuck in time – sometimes frozen in portraits, as in Somewhere in Time, forever beautiful and uncomplicated in their perfection. As critic Anna Smith has asked, ‘Why can’t women time travel?’. In Hollywood, on the unusual occasion when women do travel in time there's a lot to learn about themselves, and love! As Peggy Sue in Peggy Sue Got Married (1985), actress Kathleen Turner, then a woman in her thirties, played a woman in her forties who wakes up to find herself aged 17 again. If that’s not confusing enough, her teenage daughter is played by Helen Hunt, who in real life is only nine years younger than Turner. Since a 27-year-old Mary Pickford played a 12-year-old Pollyanna in 1920, it’s safe to say that Hollywood has always had a problem with women and age – and age is of course the inevitable and unavoidable consequence of the passing of time. While adult stars could then play children, it feels even truer today that for female actors there is a glitch in space-time, with a wormhole swallowing anything that sits between ingénue parts and mature matriarchs. At the same time, the age gaps between onscreen love interests have widened into chasms, so it’s no wonder female characters aren’t allowed to wander through time as freely as romantic leading men. As middle-aged Peggy Sue wakes up aged 17 with a lifetime of choices ahead of her and a lifetime of experience behind her, changing her life comes down to a decision about rejecting love instead of pursuing it. Though she knows that in the present she is divorcing her high school sweetheart Charlie (Nicolas Cage), she can’t bring herself to resist him in the past. Past and present also collide for Jenna (Jennifer Garner) in 13 Going on 30 (2004), who as a 13-year-old girl dropped into her future as a high-flying 30 year old magazine editor, discovers that trying to be popular in high school has made her shallow and alienated her best friend and true love Matt (Mark Ruffalo). For Jenna and Peggy Sue, time travel is not an adventurous way to win their soulmates, it’s a quest to stop themselves from messing it up in the first place, and a lesson to be grateful for what they’ve already got. The male protagonists of About Time and Groundhog Day eventually come to the same conclusion, the difference being that their realisations stem from the ability to mess up, repeat their actions and yet still control the outcomes. However, the lesson for women, it would seem, is a cautionary one about the necessity of making the right choice in the first place.
Of course, travelling through time for love doesn’t necessarily have to be of the romantic variety. The most moving part of Peggy Sue’s journey is when she visits her grandparents, long since dead in the present but delighted to see her 17-year-old self. Though in real life we can’t travel like Peggy Sue to see our departed relatives, hearing the voices and seeing images of people we have lost is something we can achieve through film. For the last seven years myself and Holdfast ed Lucy Smee have organised an event called Home Movie Day, to which people bring along old reels of film to have them cleaned up and projected, sometimes for the first time in decades. It's not unusual to see people moved to tears by the sight of their long-departed loved ones – because there they are, happy, smiling and alive on the screen. And when glimpsing their own younger selves, the years seem to fall away in an instant. In those moments, it really does feel like film is a time machine.