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Non-Review Review: About Time

About Time is pretty much vintage Richard Curtis. I don’t mean that in a bad way – certainly not in an entirely bad way. Curtis knows how to structure a romance, has a gift for distinguishing characters in a large ensemble, and has the capacity to employ sentimentality to calculated and devastating effect. About Time has moments of brilliance and emotional punch, framing the main character’s inexplicable ability to time travel in delightful metaphorical terms.

At the same time, Curtis has his weaknesses. Most notably, there’s the sense that his lead characters are all variations on the same character – with more cynical pundits suggesting the base model might be Curtis himself. Similarly, his ensembles are constructed efficiently as a collection of quirky characters who do quirky things quirkily, living out the most quaintly British of lives involving afternoon tea and indulging in the most stereotypical of exclamations (“just a tick…”, “oh gosh…”, etc). There’s a sense that Curtis’ world exists inside old-fashioned post cards more than in anything approaching the real world.

More than that, though, Curtis labours his point just a little bit too much, as if worried the audience might miss the whole “we’re all travelling in time” metaphor and the “secret to being happy” philosophy if it isn’t explicitly articulated in a voice-over monologue set to an upbeat pop song.

Time enough at last...

Time enough at last…

That’s a little harsh. About Time is mostly quite solid. It is also, at times, almost brilliant. The central concept is quite ingenious – the suggestion that the male members of a particular family can travel back through their own history, giving them a chance to right what once went wrong, at least on a personal scale.Curtis shrewdly avoids getting bogged down in mechanics or quantum physics or paradoxes. He introduces the concept to the audience, adds a few rules, and then just runs with the concept.

To be fair, it’s best not to think about the ethical implications of using the ability to get a “do-over” with the object of your affection who remains blissfully unaware of your secret. When our protagonist’s father imparts this sacred secret to Tim, he makes it clear that time-travelling is – as a rule – a “no girls allowed” affair. Neither Tim’s mother nor his sister (nor, eventually, the love of his life) know about Tim’s unique gift.

Keep your pants on...

Keep your pants on…

So there should probably be something seedy about manipulating your lover’s life without their awareness, sabotaging a relationship that they will now never have. About Time never feels as creepy as the other Rachel McAdams time-travel romance The Time-Traveller’s Wife, where a time-traveller effectively grooms his future wife by appearing throughout her life. Part of that is down to Curtis’ script which (mostly) avoids these sorts of creepy undertones, but also down to the charm of Domhnall Gleeson.

Gleeson does a surprisingly convincing impersonation of a younger ginger Hugh Grant. I mean no disrespect in making the comparison – his accent is flawless, his stutter convincing, his insecurity palpable. After all, like Woody Allen, you get a sense that there’s really only one base Richard Curtis protagonist. Gleeson has opted to play the role in a style that has worked very well before, and his charm largely carries the movie. Gleeson deserves a higher profile than he has enjoyed to date, and his work here proves he makes a convincing romantic lead.

Travelling together...

Travelling together…

Not to get too bogged down on the whole time-travel thing, since – despite the title – that’s not really what About Time is about. It’s a very clever, very shrewd narrative device, one that Curtis uses quite well – if a little too heavily. However, the rules of time-travel in About Time seem a bit… arbitrary. We’re introduced to a pivotal one at about the half-way point, but after it’s already been broken. However, the movie seems to allow our hero a chance to “reset” his mistake. It’s never too clear how or why that happened, and thinking about it too much invites all sorts of logical problems. (In a time-travel movie! Never!)

More than that, though, the film explicitly cheats. When those rules aren’t convenient to generate dramatic angst, and when breaking them will allow a play for coy sentimentality, Curtis could seem to care less. At one big emotional moment, two character break the rule together, with the only acknowledgement being that they have to be very careful. It feels just a little bit contrived, a little too convenient.

Clap your hands if you believe...

Clap your hands if you believe…

Still, there’s a whimsical charm to About Time that works remarkably well – benefiting from Curtis’ decision to frame the story as a romantic comedy and pushing the time-travel element firmly to the background. While Curtis occasionally pushes the film in overly sentimental territory, most of the movie is endearingly earnest, feeling genuine in the way that it explores the main character’s personal explorations.

About Time is a well-constructed romantic dramedy, one with enough heart to make up for some considerable flaws. Curtis occasionally over-eggs the pudding, but it helps that he’s working with a solid leading performer and some great ideas.

One Response

  1. Domhnall Gleeson is very underrated. In every genre he appears in

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