Updated: Oct 29, 2018
as reviewed by Dan
Format reviewed: Digital/Working Title (2014)
There are expectations associated with a ‘Richard Curtis film’, which is why they are all broadly interchangeable. They explore a central theme of love, be it lost, discovered, rediscovered or a combination thereof. The scenarios presented involve kooky relatives or parental dynamics. They throw up embarrassing meetings and arrivals; culture clashes between the leads; various estrangement sub-plots, and an outlet for interpersonal frustration, usually in the form of a downtrodden curmudgeon - in this case Tom Hollander’s not-so-gleeful gleeful prick of a playwright - or a loveable loser. Any one of these might happen to have some sage wisdom or timely anecdote to hand; better serving to facilitate the inevitable, rain-soaked happy ending. It’s all dreadfully formulaic, and after umpteen recycles, incredibly lazy. The plucking and tugging of the heartstrings, replete with lashings of embarrassment, chance encounters and a healthy dollop of sentimentality. All very tedious.
It’s perplexing then to admit that I sort of liked About Time. The formula is indeed predictable, and as subtle as a flogging, but it’s so well-honed you can see why it’s endured. Curtis is a skilful comedy writer, and manufactured awkwardness is a staple of his repertoire. In Domhnall Gleeson’s Tim (our central protagonist), this tendency is granted lease. Gleeson portrays Tim with a clumsy, likeable charm and he is very capable in various guises. His first taste of time travelling, as he spares himself from earlier failings and gives the overlooked girl a new year’s kiss, is sweetly written and passionately performed. So too is the initial sex scene between Tim and Rachel McAdams’ quirky yet alluring Mary. It’s hilarious precisely because every bloke would, if given the chance, keep going back for that first dance until they danced the perfect fandango. So to speak.
The rest of the cast is laden with Curtis regulars and general British quality. Lydia Wilson’s Kit Kat (Tim’s sister) is full of bohemian bonhomie, which makes her subsequent travails both poignant and predictable. Bill Nighy provides his usual twitchy, capable turn playing Bill Nighy, who just so happens to be Tim’s father and fellow time traveller. The film hinges on Gleeson and McAdams, and their chemistry is undeniable. They truly convince as two people in love, but sadly this is where things falter. There is no real substance to their relationship. We are supposed to accept the blessed hand of destiny in granting two people a near-perfect union, purely because it services the plot. The film doesn’t ask questions (or provide answers), because it’s fixated on the heavy-handed message of ‘time travel’ being unnecessary to those who truly live their lives in the first place. This is a fanciful and pretentious conceit, undermined all the more by the film contradicting itself endlessly. Nighy exposits the arbitrary, gender-biased rules of time travel and then proceeds to utterly ignore them, as and when the plot demands.
Why this power exists, and where it came from, is never explained. There are no genuine, mundane consequences for these characters, because things can always be undone. The morality of time travelling is questioned but never properly addressed. There is a suitably dramatic scenario involving Kit Kat (and resultant ramifications) and the inevitable, saccharine fate of Nighy, but in both cases the characters involved are aware - rules be damned - that they are changing or accepting their fates. In the case of Mary, she is never made aware of the manipulation taking place. She has no say in her own fate, as evidenced by Tim meeting and then re-meeting her. He chooses to reclaim her from another man, all because he decides they’re ‘destined’ to be together. The flaw in that logic is insultingly obvious. It undermines the ‘perfect’ relationship Tim and Mary share, transforming it into a bitterly ironic fallacy, sans any proper accountability. Curtis didn’t intend this, so the hypocrisy of it all renders the subsequent weeping and preaching a form of creative indulgence bordering on masturbation.
Speaking of irony, the best scene in the film is the original meeting between Mary and Tim - their literal blind date - which is rendered non-existent by the time travel device. It is a gorgeous piece of writing, complimented by beautiful photography and wonderful performances. It captures all the emotions two people feel when they first meet and realise there is an instant, electrifying attraction. It is a giddy mix of nervousness, fear, longing, hope and elation. This one, tonally-perfect scene captures all these emotions, and it is both lovely and genuinely moving to consider. It represents About Time at its finest, and though the film certainly has other moments to savour, the trademark Curtis mawkishness is too much of a burden to overcome. You can cuddle up next to someone you love and watch this film, but it’s unlikely you’ll remember it when the night is over. Particularly if it was a ‘very bad day’…