Friday, 30 May 2014

About Time (2013)

Young, awkward British man. Ridiculously attractive and charming American woman. Meet cutes and expletive ridden tirades. A selection of the finest actors Britain has to offer. So far, so standard Richard Curtis fare.

About Time continues many of the traditions that we’ve come to expect from a Richard Curtis film. Domhnall Gleeson is an excellent choice as Tim, a man capable due to time travel of bumbling through the same scenario multiple times, for a role that Hugh Grant would have probably played 20 years earlier. As Mary, Rachel McAdams is, as always (excluding Mean Girls) extremely likeable and blessed with great comic timing. She’s arguably too pretty to pull off some of the early scenes where she seems surprised at Tim’s interest and comes over all bashful, but you buy the attraction from both of them.

And Bill Nighy is Bill Nighy, so there’s that.

There’s the usual mix of cute and excruciatingly awkward moments as the two leads fall for each other, with the twist of time travel allowing the embarrassment to be spread over multiple attempts at the same meeting.
The time travel element is the biggest departure from traditional Curtis territory and the plot holes and inconsistent rules show sci-fi is not his strong suit, but this didn’t bother me too much. Despite the title it’s not really a film about time travel, it’s just a useful plot device for the story he wanted to tell. Then there’s the fact that time travel stories written by people obsessed with the genre are rarely watertight in their explanation and execution, so I give him a pass on that front.

The bit I’m less able to let pass relating to this is my discomfort with the idea of winning a girl’s affection with the use of time travel and the implicit level of deceit involved if he never reveals his ability. There are a couple of scenes which are aiming for comic but because she has no idea of his abilities, become more than a little morally dubious. 

Compare it to The Time Traveller’s Wife (the film of which McAdams also starred in) where both parties know about the time travel, or Groundhog Day where Phil uses the time travel to become a better person rather than exploit his knowledge. There are efforts made to deal with this issue, early on it’s explicitly stated that the power can’t “turn a no into a yes”, but it’s never going to be a great basis for a relationship in my opinion.

About Time largely gets away with this for three reasons.

Firstly, Curtis is one of the best there is at writing those awkward early days of a relationship, full of passion, nerves and excitement. They’re not always the most realistic, but they are some of the most charming. Secondly Gleeson and McAdams sell the mutual affection well; what will they, won’t they moments there are come from the fickle consequences of time travel and life getting in the way rather than the usual arguments and misunderstandings that populate the genre. It’s a charmingly low key romance, well suited to the film overall.

The most crucial factor in why this film didn’t fall apart on the morally dodgy ground it’s built on is that the romance part of the rom-com is largely done & dusted by the halfway point.

Instead what this film is really about is family, about the big choices we all have to make and the reality that growing up always comes at a cost. As important as Tim and Mary’s romance is, it’s his relationships with his father (Nighy) and sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) that are arguably the heart of this film. Bill Nighy is perfectly cast, bringing all his charm and humour to the role. The scenes with Tim and his dad are some of the strongest in the film. It’s a more contemplative film than some of Curtis’s more straight forward rom-coms and is better for it.

I’ve always enjoyed Richard Curtis films, they’re comforting and familiar, an idealised take on modern romance and modern Britain that usually makes up for what it lacks in realism with sentiment. His films are unashamedly romantic, and About Time is no different, it just splits it’s attention between two very different but equally important relationships.

There’s more I’d like to say about my issues with some of the specific uses of time travel in the film and more broadly about the role of women in this film but it’s tough to discuss them in any more detail without straying into spoiler territory. They have nagged away at me and gradually taken some of the shine off of a movie I really enjoyed. That’ll make for a separate blog post though.

For now I'll finish by saying that if you’re looking for a Sunday afternoon kind of film; charming, light weight and heart warming it’s a good choice. You might feel you need to give your parents a call afterwards though.

There's an awful lot to like, but Curtis definitely makes some poor choices along the way. If it proves to be his last film as he's suggested then perhaps it's a fitting conclusion to his film career. 

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