Richard Curtis writes about people who don’t exist. Or, more precisely, he writes about the sort of people you can vaguely recognise but whom you know in reality are far less interesting than how they are made to appear on-screen. His films since 4 Weddings And A Funeral have created a kind of mass-market Britishness which feels comfy and cosy in the way of a hot chocolate on a rainy autumn night; people with impossibly high incomes who seem to do no work, people who fall in love with Americans, people who are politically conservative but morally liberal and able to take two months off in the summer to lie in the garden in Cornwall and drink tea. Rather than devolving into cliché, which is how its tempting to understand his work, what this kind of comfort-blanket film-making has allowed him to do (at his best) is to allow us to examine emotions with which we are all familiar, all in the context of a kind of only just out of reach fantasy setting.
About Time is for me his best film to date. This doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed. It is. The characters are predictable in that the men can’t speak about feelings and the women are all gorgeous; it would be nice if someone in the film was a bit … well, not rich. Despite most of the film being set in London there’s none of the rich diversity that makes London a place I love to live in. All these flaws are present, and more. Despite that, the film works; deeply so.
Tim (Domhnall Glesson) reaches 21 years-old and discovers from his father (Bill Nighy, of course) that the men in his family can travel in time. They do so in a typically reserved way; they go into a dark room, close their eyes and clench fists, thinking hard about the time they want to be in. They can only go back to a point in their own lives, and when they do so there’s only one of them. So a typical Richard Curtis romantic comedy develops, complete with glamorous American woman in the form of Rachel McAdams and the usual eccentric uncles. The time travel has, as it needs to, its own rules and sticks to them, so the whole thing is narratively coherent in a way that such films often fail to be. With the time travel element this will be labelled as science fiction, which is misleading; it’s so lightly played that we never really feel snapped out of a world we think we recognise. It allows a new wrinkle on Curtis upper-class humour, a kind of ‘un-bumbling’ which allows the men to become more who they wish they were and the who their women want them to be.
The film takes wings in two places. One, in the form of Tom Hollander in a vital supporting role; his part as a self-important playwright is beautifully written and as anyone who watches British TV comedy knows, Hollander has almost supernatural levels of comic timing. He can reduce me to tears of laughter with a pause for breath.
The second, and more affecting, area in which the film succeeds abundantly is in Tim’s relationship with his father. Significant at the film’s start, almost disconcertingly absent in the middle section, it’s how the film is tied up and unified in the conclusion. It feels like an unfair caricature of Britishness – and it is an unfair caricature – but what the cliché of pathologically emotionally inarticulate males allows us is a way into is a gracious but firm reminder to say what we need and want to say before it’s too late. This is the film’s emotional heart; it’s sentimental button-pushing which works perfectly; you’re left in no doubt what the film’s trying to do and it earns forgiveness for cliché and sentiment by the good-hearted wit of the whole piece. It’s also beautifully filmed; individual shots composed with a painterly eye, occasionally and powerfully switching to hand-held shaking cameras. Your eyes and your heart are fully engaged by a wealth of well-meaning intentions, so you’re in the mood to forgive flaws which would otherwise annoy.
Maybe I’m just at a place in my life where I was ready for this. The still recent and fresh loss of a good friend in violent, tragic and public circumstances has rammed to the unwilling front of my consciousness the need for the sort of courageous honesty which allows us to keep short accounts with people; to not let the sun go down on our anger, as the Bible beautifully puts it. There’s more to open accounts in relationships than anger, of course; there’s the expression of deep love and appreciation and admiration; there’s forgiveness; there’s praise; there’s so much more. The anger can be the urgent one because it can so easily get in the way of the others; unexpressed and unworked through (those two must go together) it can asphyxiate a relationship with alarming speed. It’s hard to say what we really think and feel to people – positive or negative – because we’re so habitually afraid of rejection, of looking foolish or of getting the words wrong. Appropriately enough, then, the circumstances of our lives may mean that About Time is a (yes) timely reminder that these are things worth risking.
I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com