Updated: Oct 29, 2018
as reviewed by Tom
Format reviewed: DVD/Working Title (2014).
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. 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 and Love, Actually, 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, 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.