“Somewhere in Time” Revisited

By Poison Ivy,

“Somewhere in Time” is a preeminent romantic movie, one that predictably makes lists when romance readers are asked for recommendations. But it doesn’t show up on most of the easily-accessed top 50 or 100 movies of all time lists on the net. I looked in vain. Various Julia Roberts comedies and Hugh Grant comedies and Cary Grant comedies hogged the top spots on one list. Mainstream movies like “Titanic” and “Gone With the Wind” or thrillers like “Vertigo” were high on others. I’ve decided that many of the people compiling these lists think that “romance” and “romantic comedy” are the same. Or “romance” and “romantic thriller.” They are not. I also suspect this is partially a male-female divide. I mean, what woman really thinks that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is primarily a romance? But I swear, it was on one of those lists. “Somewhere in Time” belongs on a more specialized romance movie list, the kind that is dominated by what used to be called “women’s pictures.” Ever heard of “Miracle in the Rain,” for instance? Or “Now, Voyager”? These are romantic movies that focus on the romance, and on the intense romantic feelings of the protagonists, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. Like romance novels.

“Somewhere in Time” was a flop when it first came out in 1980. Vincent Canby of the New York Times subjected it to such a scathing review that Christopher Reeve could still quote it from memory 20 years later. Ouch. But the movie has slowly garnered a following, because it has the reputation of being a satisfyingly romantic movie. And it delivers. The story is about a modern young man who goes back in time and falls in love with an actress in 1912. It doesn’t end with marriage and babies and a white picket fence, but it does end happily.

I am not blind to the movie’s faults. Reeve is clearly still too bulked up from playing Superman to be wearing such a tight suit (very seventies). In fact, he shows some of the awkwardness of being far too handsome, and the awkwardness of wearing the wrong suit helps diminish it somewhat. But that does make him more a figure of boyish eagerness than of manly desire. Which is okay, really, since the story is about him being this woman’s eager but clueless suitor. All he knows about, or seems to, is how to be charming. And how to make love with reverent tenderness. Which is saying a lot. Every moment he spends with Jane Seymour is tender, attentive, gallant. Yes, he wants her. But his pushiness is all eagerness, not aggression. And that’s why their spending the day talking to each other can be a montage, because they don’t have anything they need to say to each other, not really. They’re focused on being in love. He just wants to worship her. And consume her. And he does so very nicely. Tender love stories like this are rare. “Somewhere in Time” is unapologetically lyrical as well, more of an emotional experience than a detailed story.

On the other hand, a lot of the movie is stilted and very artificial. Reeve is not believable as a burnt-out playwright. He looks too fresh and young. A very thin contrivance, the cliché that he has broken up with his girlfriend and is having trouble writing his current play, is what sends him looking for his true love. This doesn’t tie in with his briefly-noted past, or with his behavior during the rest of the movie. And so it goes. The scenes with the boy Arthur and the grown-up hotel servant Arthur are barely convincing. Most movie scenes with little children are pretty bad, and these were par for the course. These are plot devices that five more minutes of screen time could have made convincing, and it’s a shame that they didn’t. But the critics didn’t savage the story for its awkward moments, they hated it because it so carefully and reverently followed the romance. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said the movie was boring and too solemn. But then again, he bemoaned the movie’s lack of slyness and fun. Slyness and fun? Are those the qualities romance fans look for in a romantic story? No, those are what guys look for in chick flicks so they don’t have to get embarrassed by serious emotions.

Yet this romantic movie has worn well. Not a single romantic scene is tacky and dated. You can’t really tell that this movie was done in the 1970s, because there isno gratuitous nude scene or excess on camera lovemaking. As Reeve says in the 20th anniversary edition, showing the sex act would have been in bad taste. And the movie doesn’t do bad taste. Jane Seymour is a beautiful woman and she has youthful appeal in this story as well. She and Reeve have chemistry. Even though he is supposedly older than she, he plays younger and more naive, possibly because success has come so easily to him, whereas she may have come up through the school of hard knocks. Yet, they are well-matched and their scenes together do seem romantic and special and precious.

It was a revelation to learn how hard the moviemakers worked to achieve every romantic aspect of the movie. That they deliberately shot part of the film with a different brand of film, to achieve a different visual tone, shows the care and love with which everybody involved worked on this film. And the music is overwhlemingly romantic. Too much so, according to critics. I guess the movie’s initial lack of success broke the hearts of all involved. But they have been vindicated over time, as “Somewhere in Time” retains a strong following, and now that I have finally seen it, I’m one of its fans too. There aren’t many movies that allow a love story to be the most important thing, that have the courage to talk about love reverently. This one does.