I know it’s not a cool thing to admit, but I really like Richard Curtis. I love BLACKADDER, THE VICAR OF DIBLEY, FOUR WEDDINGS & A FUNERAL and even LOVE ACTUALLY. Not so keen on NOTTING HILL because it’s too soppy even for me, but generally I’d say he’s a pretty consistently pleasing comic writer-director. Being a Richard Curtis film, ABOUT TIME doesn’t have the slightest edge, but what it does have is a great big throbbing heart and a late emotional surge that leaves a lasting impression.
In this fantastical rom-com, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) lives a comfortable, sheltered life with his loving family, but has had next to no luck with the opposite sex. Following his 21st birthday, his dad (Bill Nighy) reveals an astonishing secret, that all the men in their family have the innate ability to travel backwards in time. At first he uses his newfound power to tweak his life, to have a second (or third, or fourth) try at mistakes he’s made, particularly in terms of missed romantic opportunities. By chance, he meets the love of his life Amy (Rachel McAdams) but has to meet her all over again when his playing around with timelines erases their initial encounter. The film then focuses on their developing relationship, family life and the weight and implications of the ability to travel back in time at will.
The time travel mechanic of About Time doesn’t really work if you give it more than a second thought. If they can only travel backwards in time, how can they seemingly ping back to the present at will rather than living out their lives again? Ill thought-through as it is, what Curtis does with time travel, and the humanity he brings out of the concept later in the story is impressively soulful.
In terms of stand-out performances, Curtis manages to get the best out of every member of his cast, but Tom Hollander in particular stands out as the wonderfully foul fame-hungry theatre scribe Harry. Rachel McAdams still has the loveliest smile in Hollywood, and though Mary essentially starts out as a plot device, a reason for Tim to keep time-jumping to tweak their relationship, she’s allowed to develop into a much more rounded and real character by the end. Domhnall Gleeson as Tim isn’t – like a lot of reviews have suggested – playing Hugh Grant. In fact he seems to be playing a young Richard Curtis (gangly, ginger and upper-middle-class enough to almost get away with terrible fashion sense) and makes for a likeable, if kind of creepy (but in a harmless rom-com way) leading man. And who in their right mind wouldn’t want Bill Nighy and Lindsay Duncan as their parents?
There was surely more to be teased out of the concept of living every day multiple times (apart from the message about how we should all ideally live our lives, what happens in terms of biological aging?). There’s a line in the film which posits that once you’re bringing up a family, the ability to time travel seems unnecessary. At that point in the film (just over halfway through) I completely agreed. The relationship stuff, as always with a Curtis film was all very lovely, but the time travel element seemed a pointless distraction – a nice idea, and ultimate wish-fulfilment for sure, but not essential to the plot. That all changes in the final act, and a disarmingly brilliant (and tragic) revelation about the rules of time travel provides a powerful gut-punch. It’s Richard Curtis demonstrating he still has unused creative juices, and it’s a wonderful surprise. Beyond this though, the rest of the dramatic elements of the story feel too soapy.
Though the time travel element better serves the film in the final act, before that we have to endure Tim indulging in some superheroics, and this doesn’t work in the slightest. It’s like Hiro trying out his powers in the first season of HEROES, only Tim never gets to wield a katana. That’s where the film falls down, in not consistently delivering on of one of its core concepts. Curtis gets a lot of dramatic potential out of it, but tries to use it to turn the film into something it isn’t. Richard Curtis doesn’t do thrilling, he doesn’t do tense, and he shouldn’t ever try to . I’m also a little disappointed that there was never any attempt to explain why it’s only men who can time travel. Even a throwaway line could have worked, something like “oh, women can time travel too, but they’re not stupid enough to actually do it”.
About Time doesn’t pull off everything it attempts, but it’s probably the only Richard Curtis film that makes you think. It’s funny in his trademark posh, sweary way, and it’s got all the usual heart and syrup, so if you’re not already a fan of Curtis then you won’t be converted. It’s also got a brain to go with all the chuckles and the awws, and joins GROUNDHOG DAY (though it’s not an instant classic like Ramis’ masterpiece) in the relatively small group of films that approach time travel in a really interesting, intimate, non-sci-fi way. SSP