Thursday, 12 September 2013

About Time (2013)

About Time (2013)
Directed by Richard Curtis; Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy

Rating: 3/5

About Time takes place in the cosy romantic Britain of Richard Curtis, where nervous middle class Englishmen fall head over heels for gorgeous American women. Curtis paints an idealised London of lawyers, playwrights, art galleries and vintage fashion. In the midst of it all is aspiring young lawyer Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), who arrives in the capital with new ambition, and a new ability.

For Tim has just been told the family secret by his father (Bill Nighy). He, along with all the other men in his family, is a time traveller, and can rewrite his own history by travelling back to any point along his own timeline (but no killing Hitler). Nighy’s matter-of-fact exposition on this matter starts the film; along with Tim’s natural incredulity, it is a comic highlight.

But this is a Richard Curtis project, and Tim’s future is not a chronicle of epic destiny, but a chance for him to finally meet the girl of his dreams. She arrives swiftly in the form of the expatriated Mary (Rachel McAdams).

Gleeson shines as an atypical leading man, red haired, slightly gangly; at once identifiable and appealing to the audience. McAdams is pleasant, but her character is given little to do. Notably, she never discovers Tim’s big secret.

Much of the humour comes from Tim’s courtship of Mary, during which he repeats awkward encounters and must meet her for the first time more than once (including a memorable date in London’s famously pitch-black Dans le Noir restaurant, a nifty cinematic experiment).

The approach is reminiscent of that other great time travelling romantic comedy, the thoroughly brilliant Groundhog Day (1993). But Tim has a blessing, not a curse, and with complete control over his path, approaches with less cynicism and more “Let’s try that again, shall we?”

So the blend of time travel with a romantic comedy is not entirely original. There is also an inevitable comparison with The Time Traveller’s Wife (2009), which also starred Rachel McAdams. Maybe she’s stuck in a time loop herself.

As for specifics, the film directly asks you not to question it too much. “We don’t seem to have destroyed civilisation yet” says Nighy. Some rules rear their head as the narrative progresses, but it’s hard to know what the boundaries actually are, and I just watched Primer (2004).

This is not a film about time travel, but a romantic comedy in which time travel furthers the plot. But it is about time: how we choose to spend it, and who we choose to spend it with. And while it’s a romance on the face of things, the more interesting relationship, and certainly the more poignant, is between Tim and his father.

At times, it’s unashamedly sentimental. The entire film has a softness to it that makes you wonder if Curtis smeared Vaseline on the lens. Curtis even manages to turn a potentially day ruining downpour into a fresh and glorious celebration.

The strength of the writing is in the ability to remain unexpected, and some of this is naturally due to the ability of time travel to allow unexpected things to happen. Conflict appears in unlikely places, and least of all in the relationship between Gleeson and McAdams.

It’s not perfect, but for all the derivative and saccharine elements, the central father-son relationship is eloquent, and something rarely explored in this way, especially with this level of British reserve. Though the script is witty, it is only peppered with outright comedy (this is still gold, from the versatile Tom Hollander, fantastic as a jaded slovenly playwright, to Tim’s swift cycle through a series of potential best men, complete with appropriate speeches).

Being relatively unfamiliar with his previous works (aside from classic television shows Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley) About Time has at the very least inspired me to investigate Richard Curtis’s other films, which are apparently much stronger.

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