A great romantic comedy . . .with time travel in it.
STARRING: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan
2013, 123 Minutes, Directed by: Richard Curtis
Richard Curtis is the modern master of the romantic comedy having written and directed Love Actually and written Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. With About Time he dabbles in science fiction in telling his love story, borrowing the hardy plot device of being able to travel through time. In focusing on how this ability affects his protagonist, he brings some fresh air to the genre while staying true to his roots.
Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) is young man about to embark on a legal career in London when his father (Bill Nighy) shares some incredible news with him. It seems that the men of the Lake family have the power – once they achieve adulthood – of travelling along their own time lines. It’s not really explained except that it’s done by sheer will power and it’s limited to their own personal history. No going back and killing Hitler then.
What follows starts as a variation on Groundhog Day, as Tim learns he can go back and “correct” the past. He then learns another important lesson: actions have consequences. He meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) but then fixes a problem for his playwright roommate who has just suffered a miserable opening night. When that’s all straightened out he realizes that he’s changed his own timeline as well and has no longer met Mary, who he now has to contrive to meet anew and keep remeeting her until he gets it right.
As the story progresses that idea of actions having consequences – often absent in movies – becomes the key to the story. He can protect his beloved sister (Lydia Wilson) from an abusive relationship, but then his own family situation is altered as well. Some changes are harmless and amusing, as when he, in effect, auditions several people for the role of “best man” at his wedding before selecting the person who gives the most appropriate toast. Others are poignant as when he learns that bringing new life into the world will foreclose his ability to visit lost loved ones. By film’s end, we have learned another important lesson along with Tim: to appreciate and live in the moment.
Curtis has the skill to shift from comedy to drama and back again without getting maudlin about it. It’s all about life where laughter and tears are both part of the human condition. That is personified in Uncle D (Richard Cordery) who is an affable and beloved member of the family even though he doesn’t seem to be all there.
Although Curtis gets nice performances throughout, it’s his three leads that carry the weight of the film. Gleeson is charming as the loving and sometimes befuddled protagonist. McAdams gets one of her best recent roles here. She’s both stunning and an actress with a wide range, and it is to her credit (and Curtis’s) that her Mary can appear “ordinary” without trying to deny her natural beauty. As for Nighy, if the British film industry hasn’t declared him a national treasure they ought to, as he can get more out of gesture or a turn of his head than many actors can get with a page of dialogue. As in Love Actually and Curtis’s underrated Pirate Radio, Nighy makes any scene he is in worth watching.
About Time is one of those movies that we often hear “isn’t really science fiction because it’s about people.” There’s no question About Time is about living in the here and now but the time travel element is what drives the plot, getting us to the truths Curtis wants to reveal. No, it’s not Pacific Rim or Gravity, but it is recognizably science fiction.
It’s a movie that makes one grateful for director Richard Curtis. Someone still knows how to make a great romantic comedy.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His recently released his first novel, Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.