Dear old Richard Curtis. Despite criticism that his fondness for schmaltz has impaired his talent in recent years, the Four Weddings and a Funeral scribe just can’t seem to help himself. His latest film, which he wrote and directed, opens with a character who unashamedly professes: “For me, it was always going to be about love”.
So begins About Time, Curtis’s third stint in the director’s chair following Love Actually and The Boat That Rocked, and it is every bit as saccharine as you would expect. From the outset it is filled with familiar Curtis tropes: the life of Tim, our geeky protagonist (played by the likeable Domhnall Gleeson) is the picture of affluent English ordinariness. He lives with his quirky, bookish family in a large house in Cornwall where, equipped with more knitted jumpers than The Killing’s Sarah Lund, they “take tea on the beach everyday” (don’t we all?). His best friends are bumbling, well-meaning idiots of the Hugh Grant variety, though less good-looking, and his sister “Kit Kat” is the sort of chum so self-consciously wacky you’d soon tire of her if you actually met her in real life.
So far, so Curtis. But wait! Here’s a twist: the men in the family, 21-year-old Tim discovers, can travel back in time to moments in their own past by clenching their fists in the dark really, really hard. What great things would he like to accomplish, asks his dad (Bill Nighy), now that he has knows about his unusual skill. “Er, I’d really like a girlfriend,” mumbles the hapless Tim. Naturally.
Time travel can be a tricky business logistically, and so, like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, About Time does away entirely with the business of “how” and asks only “what next”? As Tim, now living in London, nips neatly back in time to snog girls, fix his landlord’s career and, Groundhog Day-style, win over the woman of his dreams, the free-spirited Mary (Rachel McAdams), time travel becomes incidental to the rest of the drama.
In fact, as Tim and Mary embark on a married life so flawless that it resembles a John Lewis Christmas ad, time travel disappears from the film altogether. Really, this film is not about time at all, but about Tim, and the relationships that sustain him.
And a good thing too. With a plot that meanders and a script that lacks bite (bar the requisite posh swearing), Tim is the anchor that keeps it all grounded. It’s a big break for the exceptionally talented Gleeson (son of actor Brendan Gleeson and formerly Ron Weasley’s brother in the Harry Potter series), a subtle performer who will surely go on to great things.
At the film’s heart is Tim’s moving relationship with his father, strengthened by their shared sci-fi secret and tested by the kinds of upheaval not even time travel can solve. This is less a rom com than a family drama and though it loses its way in the middle, it is when Curtis allows these familial ties to shine that the film comes into its own.
This is, Curtis claims, to be his last directorial effort (although it is certainly not his last screenplay: a shameless plug appears for Trash, a film due next year, which he has penned). Perhaps this is a good thing. Like many great cinematic talents, Curtis is better when he has someone to bounce ideas off, someone to give his sentiment structure.
Still, I’m very glad this isn’t the last we’ll see of him. Whatever its flaws, About Time is the kind of relentlessly upbeat film that everyone, even the greatest of cynics, needs a dose of now and again.
About Time will be released nationwide on September 4.
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