Directed by: Richard Curtis.
Written by: Richard Curtis.
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson (Tim), Rachel McAdams (Mary), Bill Nighy (Dad), Lydia Wilson (Kit Kat), Lindsay Duncan (Mum), Richard Cordery (Uncle D), Joshua McGuire (Rory), Tom Hollander (Harry), Margot Robbie (Charlotte), Will Merrick (Jay), Vanessa Kirby (Joanna), Tom Hughes (Jimmy Kincade).
Like pretty much every movie about time travel (with Chris Marker’s La Jettee perhaps being the exception that proves the rule), it’s best not to examine the mechanics of how it works in About Time. Richard Curtis’ latest film is about Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) who is told by his father when he turns 21 that all the men in his family have the ability to travel in time – but only to their own past. His Dad (the wonderful Bill Nighy) has no idea why or how – he just knows that all he has to do is go into a dark room, clench his fists and think of where he wants to go, and poof, he’s there. He tells his son to use the power wisely – not to get hung up on things like money or power (that has not worked out well for generations past) – but that he has to decide what important in his life and use his gift to make those things better. You could probably make a list of all the things that don’t make sense about the time travel in About Time – or all the ways that things could have screwed up the space time continuum or whatever, but as older Joe told younger Joe in last year’s Looper “I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” That’s good advice when dealing with any time travel movie – and particularly good advice in dealing with About Time. Curtis doesn’t really care how it works; he is using it merely as a means to make his romantic comedy. On that level, the movie works. Its gets quite disturbing when you stop and think about it – but we’ll get to that later.
When the film opens, Tim is a happy young man in all ways but one – he wants a girlfriend. He is shy and awkward, and messes things up with women more often than not. He has a perfect family, but he wants something more. When he finds out on New Year’s Day he can now travel in time, he uses his power the first time to go back to the previous night – where instead of kissing the girl when the clock struck midnight, he gave her an awkward handshake – and correct his mistake. Later he’ll use it to correct his errors in his ill-fated attempt to seduce Charlotte (Margot Robbie), his sister’s friend, but figures out that even with his power he cannot get everything he wants. Then he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) and falls immediately in love with her – and she seems to like him as well. And then he screws it up by going too far back in time, and has to conspire to meet her all over again. This begins the love affair at the center of the film.
On the surface, About Time is a charming romantic comedy, with a science fiction twist. Unlike most time travel movies, About Time doesn’t really focus on the big questions – there is no going back to try and save someone’s life or prevent disaster, etc. – but on the small, day-to-day life things – those little moments you want to relive, or wish you could do again, just slightly better this time around. Gleeson is charming and funny – an unlikely leading man perhaps, but a good one, and he shares an undeniable chemistry with McAdams, who has always been good in romantic movies – a naturally lovable actress, and no less so here. And Nighy is even better – an unrealistically great father to be sure, but one I think most people would love to have. His scenes with Gleeson are the best in the film – and I’m not ashamed to admit I teared up a few times near the end.
So I enjoyed About Time on its surface level. As a romantic fantasy, it works very well, and as a father-son story, it also works very well. Yes, pretty much everyone in the movie is unrealistically perfect and nice – I don’t recall any real arguments in the films at all. Yet, I also have to admit that while I was watching About Time I also could help but think about the ways in which this comic fantasy were actually quite disturbing – yes, it has to do with the time travel elements, but not in their mechanics, but on what Tim does with them.
The question the movie never thinks to ask is whether everything Tim – and his father – do in the film is fair to Mary – or Tim’s mother. There is no doubt that Tim uses his gifts to manipulate Mary into falling in love with him – whether it’s using the information he gets from her in the present when he travels to the past to get her to open up and talk to her, or using the opportunity to go back in time to make their first sexual encounter better. At what point does Tim cross the line between going back and making things better and going back to rob Mary of her free will? The movie uses the Charlotte storyline early in the film to teach Tim the lesson that, in his words, “You cannot use time travel to make people fall in love with you” – which I think may have been Curtis’ way of addressing the issue of Tim’s manipulation of Mary through a different way. And it’s also true that when Tim goes back in time to prevent Mary from meeting her boyfriend, it’s only far enough back so he can meet her before then, which he already had done without time travel, but screwed it up because of time travel. But does that really matter? For her part, Mary is clearly in love and happy with Tim – but how much of that happiness is based on a lie? While watching About Time, I have to admit at times an alternate movie was running through my head – a darker movie. I also couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor KitKat – Tim’s sister, who because she’s a girl, doesn’t get the gift of time travel. Stupid, sexist genes.
None of this ruined About Time for me, but did make me think that perhaps the film could have been better had Curtis addressed some of these issues and dealt with them. As it stands, About Time is a comic fantasy – and a good one if taken on its surface level. The more you think about it, the darker it all seems however, no matter if the movie chooses to address those matters or not.