Richard Curtis is responsible for such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually – romantic dramedies that detail burgeoning relationships that work, as often as not, because the people in them are flawed. For About Time, Curtis adds a very limited form of time travel to the mix in a low key, unsurprisingly affecting movie that will provoke a bit of laughter, a few tears and the feeling of almost two hours well spent.
Tim (Domhnall Gleason) is a shy, gangly young man who has been brought up in a well-off, very enlightened and more than a little bohemian family. On his twenty-first birthday, his father (Bill Nighy) pulls him aside to inform him of a big family secret: the men of his family inherit the ability to time travel – only backwards, and only within his own lifespan.
There’s another key limitation that comes out later, but of course, Tim completely fails to believe the whole thing – until he actually does it, traveling back to what his sister, Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) will at some point refer to as the ‘world’s worst party,’ in order to kiss an eager young lady he had totally failed to snog the first time. And, naturally, he must keep his gift a secret – even his mother (Lindsay Duncan) has never been told.
A chance encounter leads Tim to Mary (Rachel McAdams), with whom he establishes a connection through their shared appreciation of Kate Moss. He also uses his gift to make things proceed more smoothly – enhancing what is already there – after he screws up and has to start over.
Since he cannot, as his dad so succinctly puts it ‘kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy,’ he tries to use his gift to both make his relationship with Mary better and spend more time with his dad. A summer crush (Margot Robbie) returns at a crucial point, leading him to appreciate his life even more – and a tragic family situation (two tragedies, actually) give him much to reflect upon.
The point of the movie may be as simple as taking the time to enjoy or at least appreciate the life we’re living, but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple movie. Tim’s relationships with his family, with Mary, and even with a playwright roommate and friend from work, are well thought out and feel pretty natural. We understand why he tries to use his gift to help everyone – and especially Kit Kat and her relationship with a very unsuitable guy named Jimmy (Tom Hughes).
Gleason (son of Brendan Gleason, and clearly inheritor of his ability) makes Tim a smart (but not too smart), caring and slightly awkward guy whom we really believe to be, at heart, a good guy – even when he uses his gift for selfish ends. We know he’ll muddle through in the end – even if we don’t quite know how – and there’s something comforting about that.
McAdams’ Mary is not quite the usual plucky, perky romantic heroine we’ve seen before. She’s a match for Tim in the awkward sweepstakes and just a bit mousy – until she smiles and those dimples transform her. We also get the feeling, early on, that she’s probably a bit smarter than Tim and, oddly enough, that makes us more sympathetic towards her.
Nighy, of course, is a delight. As Tim’s dad he is charmingly matter-of-fact; he’s not overly demonstrative but we can see the love he has for his family in eyes and the way he lets them be themselves. When he informs Tim of the last limitation to his gift, it comes under circumstances that will provoke tears because he underplays the situation so deftly.
Curtis presents About Time in a gently deliberate manner, with a beautiful contrast between the beauty of the family home (a charming beachfront property) and the mix of quaint and modern that is today’s London. The movie works because the characters and their relationships transcend locales – and because the cast is so right that characters that exist almost solely to add a bit of quirk – Tim’s Uncle Desmond (Richard Cordery) who is both utterly charming and dimmer than twilight – don’t feel like plot devices or afterthoughts.
If there’s one thing that keeps About Time from equalling Four Weddings and a funeral, it’s that it could have been a touch tighter. At a hair over two hours, it could probably have been ten minutes shorter – or even five – and it would have been even more effective/affecting.
As it is, About Time mostly hits the sweet spot. It might not be quite as good as Four Weddings, but it is better than Love Actually and Notting Hill. That’s pretty darned good.
Final Grade: A-
Photos by Murray close/Courtesy of Universal Pictures