A group of young 21st century archaologists head back to Castlegard in 14th century France to rescue their professor.
A sarcophagus carved with the effigy of a one-eared knight, unusually holding the hand of his lady; a note written by a missing 21st century archaologist in 14th century ink, found in an ancient sealed-up room. And that’s just the medieval mysteries in Timeline.
The 21st century technology which makes travel back to that century possible has its own problems, with teleportation destroying subjects’ cellular structure. Did no-one remember Jeff Goldblum’s dog in The Fly?
Okay, there are no inside-out pet pooches here but time travel certainly messes with your insides — nature’s payback perhaps, for messing with actual historical events.
Timeline is ridicuous, and performed poorly on release back in 2003, but now years down the line it has a certain eye-popping charm — bolstered by, if not solely due to, a soaking wet Gerard Butler spinning French aristocrat Anna Friel round in a coracle while asking if she’s married.
Butler is Andre Marek, a 21st century Scottish archeologist and academic who we first see explaining how love for a beautiful frenchwoman, Lady Claire (Friel), changed the course of history. Later he shows the history-averse Chris (Paul Walker) the stone coffin and earless knight carved with his lady, their love enduring down the centuries.
The stories they are uncovering in the French town of Castlegard are perfect for some of Marek’s overly-romantic students, as well as for Chris, fellow archaologist Professor Edward Johnston’s rudderless son, who despite his mockery of historical traditions of courtly love pines irritatingly for the clever Kate (Frances O’Connor).
Resurfacing in the same town in 1357 during the 100 Years’ War, they all get a real-life lesson in the past — its bloody, casual cruelties, terrifying weaponry and lax roof thatching. Life is as cheap as some of the sets.
They are there to find Prof Johnston (Billy Connolly), sent there by his corporate dig sponsor ITC, a company which has accidentally discovered a wormhole into the 14th century while experimenting with teleportation. Archaologists Andre, Kate and Francois, plus Chris, ITC minder Frank Gordon (Neal McDonough) and two security men, each posess a “marker” which when pressed can bring them back to the present.
Only Frank though is aware of the re-entry problems (a situation which is well-explained later in the movie: if teleporting someone is like “sending a fax”, repeated trips are akin to “sending a fax of a fax”).
Timeline was directed by Richard Donner and based on the Michael Chrichton book of the same name, which I haven’t read but apparently goes deep into the physics behind wormholes. Donner’s movie is not TENET, but it is a pacy if rickety, illogical, amdram-esque hoot — as long as you leave your critical faculties back in the 21st century, enjoy watching giant flaming rocks caterpaulted onto the perfideous English, and think strange women spinning in ponds are an acceptable reason to change history.
This is hardly Henry V. It’s accidentally closer to Monty Python And The Holy Grail, in that I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a chain-mailed extra clip-clopping along behind with a pair of coconut shells. Still, the weaponry is impressive as fire rains down on each side, with Prof Johnston bartering knowledge of the unquenchable “Greek fire” with the English in return for his freedom. The problem is that it gives them an advantage over the French who in reality won the battle. Marek too is aware he is changing the past: as a historian he knows the French triumphed only after being goaded into fury when the English hanged Lady Claire from the battlements. Now he is falling for her, does he have to let her die to preserve the timeline? (This is a romantic romp not some dour, muddy, seven-hour black-and-white endurance test so I think you can guess what he does.)
Gerard Butler is rather well-cast as a lover of history and its women, a man not just an expert with a trowel but also a dab hand with a sword. He’s still not very good, but to be fair he and the rest of the cast do have to deal with some very on-the-nose dialogue.
There’s a fantastic moment near the end when Marek, already thinking about staying in the 14th century with the woman he loves, fights an English knight who turns out to be an understandably bitter ITC employee previously left behind. He chops off Marek’s ear with an axe, with Marek shrieking “my ear!” before realising with delight “it’s me!” — he is not changing history but has always been part of it.
Walker is a vapid presence, though O’Connor’s more gumption-filled role gives her slightly more scope. Best of the lot is Rossif Sutherland as poor Francois, forced to decide his own fate after some vindictive verbal shenanigans from deliciously evil English aristo Lord Oliver (Michael Sheen). It’s a horrible, tense and heartbreaking few seconds.
The gleeful Sheen chews the rather flimsy and remarkably clean scenery with such gusto I’m amazed it didn’t collapse into a soggy mess. Back in the 21st century David Thewlis’s ITC boss Robert Doniger is doing much the same, stomping around, the weight of amoral big business on his shoulders.
With so many current and ex-ITC employees wandering round medieval Europe there seem to be more markers than royal pretenders, so when one is stolen or doesn’t work there’s always another that can be found. Chris, Kate and the professor finally make it back home together, thwarting Doniger who knows that if any returnee talks his share price will plummet. As they reappear in the 21st century teleporter, Doniger is sent back to the 14th century where he’s trampled by a horse.
I could have done with finding out more about the missaligned veins and collapsing cell structures of repeated wormhole travel, and a little less of the romance and running around the woods chased by historical re-enactors, much as I love medieval epics, courtly love and early-oughts Gerard Butler with his shirt off.
Love does ultimately win though. Professor Johnston, now back in the 21st century, returns to the uncovered sarcophagus with Kate and Chris, and deciphers the inscription on the tomb. It is indeed Marek, who had three children with Lady Claire and lived a happy if not especially long life. He died in 1382, 25 years later, so I suppose one could say he both did and didn’t make old bones.
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