Updated: Jan 15
Some people seem to be allergic to Richard Curtis films, perceiving them to be overbearingly sentimental – and perhaps most of them are, but unashamedly so. That is a huge part of the charm of About Time (2013). Like so many of his films, it doesn’t pretend to be something it is not. Curtis’ script brings such warmth and amiability to proceedings that one would have to possess a heart of concrete to be completely hostile towards it.
Domhnall Gleeson shines as Tim, a young lawyer unlucky in love, who meets the time-traveller’s wife herself, Rachel McAdams (playing Mary) in the famous Dans le Noir? restaurant in London, where the patrons dine in the dark. Very early on in the film, and in an amusingly blasé way, Tim is informed by his father (the incomparable Bill Nighy) that the men in the family have always had the ability to travel in time, but only backwards along their timeline, and then return to the present. What follows is a funny, bittersweet, raw, and ultimately, flawed examination of what someone would do with this ability. Unsurprisingly, it’s largely superficial.
A major strength of the film is the cast who infuse the film with a blithe elegance. The lifestyle is pure Curtis. Tim’s mum and dad live in a majestic house with a picturesque view of the Cornish coast. The brilliantly acerbic and surly Harry (Tom Hollander) is an unsuccessful London playwright. Lydia Wilson is frank and real as Tim’s kooky, fragile sister, Kit Kat. In one subtle and affecting scene, she describes herself as “the faller. Every family has someone who falls, who doesn’t make the grade, who stumbles, who life trips up.” There are no limits to the lengths Tim will go in order to protect his sister, even at the expense of plot logic. Lindsay Duncan and Bill Nighy are perfectly cast as Tim and Kit Kat’s retired parents. Uncle Desmond (Richard Cordery) is one of the sweetest characters in film. Rachel McAdams is disarming and gentle as Mary, and Gleeson convinces as a wide-eyed romantic lead. He is, however, slightly hampered by the need for his character to be a somewhat faux version of Hugh Grant in the likes of Notting Hill (1999) and Love Actually (2003), but that is the fault of the script, not the actor. He is believable and fun in the role, and exudes a self-conscious likeability that is typical of the lead characters in Richard Curtis films.
This brings me to my main criticism of About Time. There exists an undercurrent of sugar-coated misogyny in Curtis’ recent films. It rears its most ugly head throughout the bulk of his previous directorial effort, the disappointing and unsavoury The Boat That Rocked (2009), which contained, effectively, a scene of attempted rape, all in the name of farce. There is nothing quite so misjudged in About Time, but there are occasions where Tim’s actions undermine the sweetness and innocence of his character, making him rather deceitful. For example, throughout the film, Mary is left unaware of his time travel abilities, one of several situations where Tim is not being fully truthful with his future wife.
About Time does have one other rather major weakness, concerning the use of time travel itself. The film sets up its logic, then happily disregards it as the plot requires. Many gaping plot-shaped holes are opened up and left unresolved, a significant one being: how can Kit Kat travel back in time with him if it is only the men in the family that can travel back in time? Despite these reservations, About Time is saved by its good-naturedness and has a certain tender magic that enables it to linger in the memory longer than other films of its type. This stems from the heartfelt relationship between Tim and his father, James. It is the most effective love story of the film, beautifully examining the slightly awkward but irrevocable bond that sons and fathers can cultivate. This element is very moving and exquisitely played. When the story keeps returning to this relationship, the film is just about as life affirming as film can get.
Ultimately, the film’s tagline sums it all up rather well – it’s a funny film about love. With a bit of time travel.
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’…