From Richard Curtis, the writer of some of Britain’s best loved films (Notting Hill, Love Actually) comes another loveable rom-com which slightly sets itself apart by means of a little bit of magic realism.
About Time showcases Curtis’ skill with directing as well as writing; he’s drawn a terrific lead performance from Domhnall Gleeson, who is perhaps still best known for playing Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films. This looks set to change, and the ability Gleeson displays here makes him thoroughly deserving of further recognition.
The film is marvellously funny from the start, where protagonist Tim (Gleeson) describes himself as “too tall, too skinny, too orange”, before introducing us to his father, mother and sister (played respectively by Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan and Lydia Wilson). The awkward-as-hell family New Year’s Eve party which follows feels rather similar to the festive party scene which first brought Bridget Jones to the screen (Curtis adapted Helen Fielding’s novel), but it is nonetheless hilarious.
The New Year brings a fresh surprise for Tim as his father reveals that the males of the family can travel through time. Handheld camerawork is overused in the film’s early minutes, but is put to apt use in documenting Tim’s first disorientating time travel experience, in which he returns to the party and kisses an endearingly goofy girl at midnight. This sets the tone for the time travel, which remains grounded in reality, providing Tim with the chance for do-overs which usually involve women. He is in search of love, not just sex, though a repeated ‘first time’ has great comic effect.
Whilst the bumbling Tim endures unsuccessful attempts at securing requited love the film continues like a male-led Bridget Jones’s Diary, though the time travel makes it reminiscent of Peter Howitt’s alternate reality rom-com Sliding Doors. Eventually though, Tim is living happily with fiancée Mary (Rachel McAdams, under-taxed as the likeable beauty she’s played a few times before). It’s at this point that things start to feel a little comfortable, so a weather-related catastrophe at the pair’s wedding adds another welcome dash of mishap humour.
Comedy aside, About Time succeeds most heartily in its construction of a convincing family. Bill Nighy is hilarious and touching as Tim’s father/time travel mentor, and the father-son relationship is often more moving and poignant than Tim’s life with Mary. Another dimension is added by a fleshy sub-plot devoted to Tim’s sister, a story which affirms the believable portrayal of the siblings’ bond, and adds a further intelligent kink to the complications of living as a time traveller.
However, this is no Source Code; Curtis’ version of time travel is refreshingly simple, and his aim is purely to chart the love and development of families, both within Tim’s parental home and his new life with Mary.
About Time doesn’t have the same breadth of characters and plots as Curtis’ 2003 hit Love Actually, instead plumping for a lengthy timescale like Lone Scherfig’s One Day. All of these similarities to prior romantic comedies, however, do not make About Time familiar or formulaic like many predictable Hollywood rom-coms, but cement its status as a quintessential member of the British branch of this genre – where films are distinctive for their well-developed characters and emotive storytelling.
About Time is crammed with witty and truthful observations of everyday life, briefly glimpsed by the camera as our lead runs through London streets. This film presents one fantasy of a largely happy British life, with some of the pain of reality allowed into the picture. However, Curtis’ vision is often somewhat sentimental, and his concluding scenarios idyllic. About Time demonstrates the power of cinema in allowing audiences to time travel; we sit in the dark rooting for Tim and his family in a fly-on-the-wall fashion, then leave him suspended in time before returning to the ongoing realities of our own lives.