About Time Review
There are as many tears as there are laughs in the latest film from Richard Curtis
It would seem that Richard Curtis' brief stint as a writer on Doctor Who had a profound effect on him because his latest film is also about time travel. This is Curtis’ third film as director, following on from his pirate radio themed 2009 movie The Boat That Rocked and 2003’sLove Actually. Unlike his previous two films, which tended to be rather episodic and feature a large cast, About Time is far more linear or at least as linear as a film about time travel can be.
About Time centres on a young man called Tim, played by Domhnall Gleeson the son of Brendan, who discovers from his father (Bill Nighy) that all the men in their family can time travel. From this rather improbable premise, Curtis has fashioned a charming and genuinely moving film that is ultimately about the relationship between fathers and sons. The time travel aspect is primarily an interesting plot device that allows for laughs that are often in the style of Groundhog Day. However thanks to film’s set of internal rules that limit the scope of the time travel, Curtis is also able to deliver some moments with real emotional impact.
As Tim’s father explains to him, you can only time travel backwards and only within your own lifetime. The issue of the butterfly effect is basically ignored, with Nighy essentially saying that it doesn’t seem to be a problem. However, given what Tim gets up to in the film, you can’t help but feel that his constant meddling in the past would actually change things quite significantly. Nighy also forgets to initially mention something incredibly important, that once you have a child you can’t go back before the moment of their birth because that could change what child you actually have.
So clearly there is some form of butterfly effect, although logically shouldn’t the rule be that you can’t go back before their moment of conception? However this is all a rather pointless debate because the film sets out its ground rules regarding time travel and largely sticks to them, allowing Curtis to tell his real story which is how the choices we make affect our lives. Of course, this being a Richard Curtis film it exists in a comfortable middle class world, where everyone seems very well off despite not really working and their problems are fairly minor compared to much of the planet.
Domhnall Gleeson, despite actually being Irish, does a great job of playing the slightly posh and rather clueless Tim - a part that would have had Hugh Grant’s name all over it if the film had been made 15 years ago. In the absence of Mr. Grant, Bill Nighy has become Curtis’ new muse and rewards him with another masterful performance that provides the emotional core of the film. Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies) plays the token American love interest that has worked so well for Curtis in the past and is both clever and pretty enough to justify Tim’s infatuation. Although you do feel the poor girl is being rather manipulated by all of Tim’s time travel exploits.
The underlying message is that even if you're a time traveler, you need to make each day count.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with Lindsay Duncan playing Tim’s mother with an understated sense of middle class Englishness, that suits the film perfectly. Lydia Wilson is as cute as button as Tim’s fragile sister Kit Kat and it’s her story that delivers some of the most heartbreaking scenes. Whilst Tom Hollander almost steals the entire film as Tim’s landlord, a bitter and acid mouthed playwright.
Whilst About Time is being marketed as a comedy, understandable given that it’s written and directed by Richard Curtis, the laughs are mostly subtle and you’ll find yourself chuckling rather than rolling in the aisles. In fact the film has just as many sad moments as it does laughs and in that sense it's very similar to Curtis’ Doctor Who story which centred on the tragic figure of Vincent Van Gogh. Anyone who has seen Love Actually will know that Curtis is capable of easily moving from laughs to tears and is able to do so without becoming cloying; one only has to think of Emma Thompson’s heartbreaking and beautifully underplayed scene in Love Actually where she discovers her husband’s infidelity as a prime example. About Time probably has more of these emotional scenes than any other Richard Curtis film and at it’s heart is the relationship between Bill Nighy and Domhnall Gleeson. There is a genuine sense of love and affection between the two characters and ultimately it’s the loss that we all must face that gives the film its dramatic arc. The underlying message is that even if you're a time traveler, you need to make each day count.
Just as he did with Love Actually, Curtis manages to make London look especially photogenic and this time he adds a beautiful Cornwall to his picture postcard version of England. With the exception of a gloriously rained out wedding, the film seems to take place in a sun-drenched tourist board advert for England, so God knows when they filmed it! However, technically it looks gorgeous and Curtis and his director of photography deliver a wonderfully composed film that takes full advantage of its widescreen ratio.
About Time is a classic piece of Richard Curtis: all middle class England, and a clumsy but posh leading man. Throw in an American leading lady, a picture postcard London and a spot of Bill Nighy and you’ve got a recipe for success. Whilst there are plenty of laughs to be had thanks to the time travel plot device, the film is also very moving in places and makes a serious point about life and loss.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and, as soon as you get out of the cinema, you’ll call your dad.
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