About Time: Warmth and wit calling us to courageous honesty

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

Ruby Sparks

Sometimes the best way to approach a tricky subject is to approach from side-on, wondering past it as if by accident, brushing its shoulder and letting a nod be as good as a wink. Sometimes, of course, you need to keep the main thing as the main thing; other times you can read so much into a film or a book that you read sub-texts that aren’t there, making a better film in your head than exists in reality.

Some may accuse Ruby Sparks, like the film itself’s central character, of the latter, but they’d be wrong. A writer struggles to follow his break-out masterpiece; he’s in therapy and whilst he’s managed to eek out the occasional short story he’s already trading on former glory with a 10th anniversary reissue of his debut novel.
All of this changes when he dreams of an ideal woman; he’s inspired to write about her, and finds himself writing her into existence, in his flat and his bed.

So it goes – the film playing out like the love-child of the under-seen Adaptation and the under-appreciated (500) Days Of Summer, without the former’s excessive intellectual postering and the latter’s over-played kookiness. The comic touch is mostly light, only occasionally over-playing itself; the detours into slapstick largely work, and even when they don’t the bum note doesn’t resound for too long.

True to form, the plot follows the paths of romantic comedy convention, but all the better to subvert and use them for a bigger purpose. In doing so, the film touches on dark themes with a delicate brushstroke – the gap between the fantasy of idealised romance and the mundane reality, the corrosive effects of pornographic fantasy on real people, the terrifying power the abuser holds over an abused partner. By the time the curtain comes down on the fantasy with an ending that is conventional within in its genre, you’re left seeing romantic comedies, the magazines and billboard and people around you with sharpened senses.

I rated this 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com & 8/10 on imdb.com

(500) Days Of Summer

By rights, this shouldn’t work. It’s clearly cut from the same cloth as Juno – a cool, independently minded romantic comedy aimed that designed to appeal as much to men as it does to women. And, as we all should know, it’s always painful when we’re offered a film that’s ‘another’ of last year’s big breakout hit.

(500) Days Of Summer, though, is better than Juno. It is smart, funny and independently minded with a great soundtrack (off ‘sad British pop music’ as the narrator memorably intones at the beginning to explain the lead character’s outlook on life) – but actually feels more real than Juno’s enjoyable but unnaturally cool dialogue. It’s funny and clever in its use of what could have been a serious misstep of a dance scene. It gets away with so  much by perfect balance and self-control at all the right moments.

The real plus of the film, though, is in its point-of-view. This is all from the perspective of one character – the man (played by the always engaging Joseph Gordon-Levitt). That’s at least partly a marketing thing, obviously, but it works. As the narrative zips back and forward across the titular 500 days it slowly becomes clear that what we think is happening may not be – we, like the man himself, may be reading things the wrong way. He’s seeing things though the lens of his own desires and prejudices, and it lands him in all sorts of emotional trouble, culminating in a beautiful split-screen sequence showing the same scene from the perspective of both his expectations and the painful reality. Slowly the former gives way to the latter, and his world collapses with exquisite agony.

Of course, there’s stock character  – his two mates, for example. Both the central characters are typical of the genre also – but when the two leads (Zooey Deschanel as Summer) are as engaging as this, it doesn’t matter. So much just works, carrying you through the inevitable flaws: the soundtrack is perfect (maybe I’m just biased but any film with features The Smiths twice in the first half hour is on to a winner); the narration is occasional, beautiful and charming; the ending entirely appropriate and just ambiguous enough whilst still being unmistakeably upbeat.

So, see it. One of the very few romantic comedies to appeal equally to men and women; it will make you think about what you see and what’s real in relationships; and it will just make you smile. See it.

The Boat That [didn’t really] Rock

There are some films that for some reason one gets the impression that you shouldn’t enjoy. Some people think that they are somehow ‘beneath’ you. Some people think that of a film like Love, Actually. It’s just not a film that you’re supposed to like.

Now no-one’s pretending that it’s a masterpiece, but there’s some fine moments in it. It’s problem is that there are just too many characters and overlapping sub-plots. Richard Curtis, who both wrote and directed that film, really needed someone to sit down with him and take a pair of scissors to the script and to the finished film. If that had been done, it would have been a fine romantic comedy.

It’s the same with The Boat That Rocked, with added 60s nostalgia. It all feels a little forced, a little artificial. Some of the jokes are too obvious and repeated too many times. But they’re still funny. I can watch and enjoy just about any films which features one of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Kenneth Branagh; so to have them both is a real treat. There are actors who just exude presence, people you just can’t help but watch.

But the can’t save this one; it’s no Notting Hill. Too repetitive, too long, too any characters….it feels like Piraate Radio For Dummies. It’s by no means the worst film of the year, but really….could have been so much more.