Although About Time is only Richard Curtis’ third directorial undertaking, the writer-director has been penning romantic comedy screenplays since the 1990s, developing a filmmaking voice that’s sentimental yet affecting and thoughtful. Although it features a few rom-com clichés, About Time is probably the most original thing that the worn-out genre has offered up since 2009’s (500) Days of Summer. Heartbreaking and often unpredictable, this is a smart, wonderful movie which provides entertainment for both males and females, not to mention it feels surprisingly natural when it could have been an artificial feature-length sitcom episode.
On his twenty-first birthday, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is informed by his father (Bill Nighy) that, due to a special bloodline, all of the men in his family are capable of time travel. However, they can only travel back to moments they’ve previously experienced, only needing a dark space in order to take the jump and possibly change the present. Moving to London to practise law, Tim hopes to use his special gift to find a girlfriend after striking out with gorgeous family friend Charlotte (Margot Robbie). By chance, Tim meets the beautiful Mary (Rachel McAdams), and manages to woo her thanks to his inherited abilities. Eventually marrying his dream girl and starting a family, Tim can’t help but continually tinker with time travel, ultimately doing more harm than good.
In the hands of any other filmmaker, About Time would spend two hours exploring Tim’s antics as he constantly time travels to fix mistakes while trying to win Mary’s heart, and would climax with a clichéd break-up-to-make-up scenario involving Tim coming clean and explaining his ability. It would also star someone like Taylor Lautner. But the premise is in safe hands with Curtis, who only dedicates the opening act to Tim discovering his gift and winning over Mary. From there, Curtis moves into what would be sequel territory to any other rom-com filmmaker, exploring how Tim learns to navigate marriage and deal with tough life issues. Following this, the third act commendably shifts its focus, concentrating more on Tim’s relationship with his father to observe how the two deal with such an extraordinary gift that’s kept a secret from their significant others. The two men share a warm bond, and the events and themes which stem from this lead to a rumination on being appreciative of the little moments in life, your loved ones, and simple day-to-day existence.
Of course, Tim wishes to perpetually alter things for the betterment of himself and others, but he often faces the proverbial butterfly effect. We’re left to ponder how we would deal with the various conundrums faced by Tim, who at one stage tries to course-correct his beloved sister’s life before realising that the effort was wholly unnecessary, not to mention a threat to his own existence. The notion of death is eventually introduced, and the handling is absolutely extraordinary, bestowing the film with genuine emotional resonance and weight. About Time could’ve been a convoluted mess, but it’s a smooth ride thanks to Curtis’ clever script. He also figures out a pitch-perfect way to close the picture, which frankly left this reviewer close to tears. If there’s anything to criticise, it’s that the subplot involving Charlotte is awkwardly dropped, and the feature does feel a bit long in the tooth; it could’ve been trimmed by 5-10 minutes without losing any of its impact.
It helps that About Time is genuinely funny as well, with the time travelling shenanigans providing more laughs than cringes. One could easily imagine a succession of sitcom gags flowing from this premise, but Curtis side-steps such a pitfall with a marvellous sleight of hand, not to mention the characters at the centre of the story feel like real people worth following and rooting for, rather than one-dimensional plot pawns used for the sake of cheap humour. At first glance, Gleeson might seem like a pale stand-in for Hugh Grant (a veteran of Curtis’ films), but he really comes into his own here. He’s a strange pick for a romantic lead considering how “normal” he is, but this is a case of picking the right actor for a role, rather than a star guaranteed to bring in more box office dollars. Gleeson also shows the character maturing over the years, becoming more confident and generally turning into an adult. McAdams is simply lovely alongside him, displaying the same level of nuance exhibited by Gleeson. Although it might’ve been nice to see Zooey Deschanel in the role (who was originally cast), McAdams is delightful, with her beauty making it easy to understand why Tim falls for her so easily. Also worth mentioning is Nighy, brilliant as always playing Tim’s father.
Curtis brings out all of the elements that have peppered his screenplays for the past two decades, with choice banter, awkward embarrassments, meet-cutes, and relatable drama. Some could bash the film for using these types of conventions, but that would be silly. Likewise, curmudgeons and cynical critics could probably pick apart the fantasy conceit with relish, but to do so would be to miss the entire point of the enterprise. Curtis did not set out to create a groundbreaking sci-fi vision; he simply used a basic idea as the basis for a romantic comedy with profound thematic undercurrents. What matters is that About Time works, and for all of its sentiment and schmaltz, it has the power to move you and make you cry, which is one hell of an achievement. Filmmakers like Michael Bay, Brett Ratner and Uwe Boll will never be able to achieve the level of emotional power that Curtis conjures up here with seemingly little effort, so it seems unnecessary to nit-pick the script. About Time is non-cynical and simply enchanting, and it absolutely deserves to be seen.