Notting Hill writer Richard Curtis takes to the director’s chair for his latest comedy-drama about a time traveller who uses his newfound power to re-win the heart of the girl that got away…
Domhnall Gleeson takes the reins so frequently, and successfully, held by “Mr Englishness” Hugh Grant in Richard Curtis’ new comedy-drama About Time. Told by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in the family have the ability to travel through time, Gleeson’s Tim decides to use his newfound power to get the one thing he’s never had: a girlfriend. He moves to London whereupon he meets the cute, fringe-conscious American Mary (Rachel McAdams) who ultimately falls for the charms of her reserved, dismissively retiring new friend.
The presence of McAdams will no-doubt remind many of The Time Traveller’s Wife but About Time has more in common with Groundhog Day. Not that Curtis’ film matches the Bill Murray-fronted comedy for laughs, more for its use of the concept. After Will meets Mary at the unique Clerkenwell restaurant Dans Le Noir, where diners, guided by blind servers, eat in complete darkness, the pair hit it off. With a wry smile he coaxes Mary into giving him her phone number and the two head home separately. That night, Will’s housemate Harry (Tom Hollander), a writer whose new play has just crashed on debut after one of the actors forgets his lines, prompts the time traveller into action. He uses his powers to go back a few hours in order to remind the forgetful actor to re-read his script before taking to the stage floor. However, in doing so, he has wiped his meeting with Mary from history, and in this new timeline, she has no recollection of him at all.
Unable to help Harry and romance Mary at the same time, Will, who has also lost her phone number due to his time-jump, must try to track her down from the memory of their conversation. When he eventually bumps into her at an art exhibition he finds the going far tougher than before. So he uses his powers of time travel to replay various moments between the pair in order to tip the odds in is favour.
Curtis is playful in his use of time travel to the point where the muddy waters of this sci-fi-fantasy conundrum threaten to derail what is a heartfelt and touching story. It isn’t easy setting the guidelines of time “trekking” without stepping on some scientific anomaly, so the writer-director remains fairly vague in his interpretation of it, hoping the odd passing gesture to the “rules” doesn’t dilute the genuinely fine relationship-drama About Time is built upon.
What is particularly likeable about the film is how Curtis assembles the various generations of family, highlighting moments of happiness and celebration alongside tragedy and despair. Thankfully, we are not privy to two-hours of Will trying and failing to woo Mary before an inevitable conclusion. The pair hit it off quite quickly and we see their relationship develop over several years. Alongside wedding bells and children, Will’s relationship with his loving father blossoms while he comes to the aid of his wayward, happy-go-lucky sister Joanna (Vanessa Kirby) whose penchant for “bad boys” leads her down a troubling path.
There’s nothing unique about all this but Curtis presents it to us like a warm embrace that is almost impossible to dislike. Life isn’t straightforward, he tells us, but there’s so much worth experiencing along the way. Perhaps autobiographically, the veteran writer-director is in nostalgic mood, flirting with ideas concerning the “what ifs” in life as well as the inevitability of being human. What time travel ultimately gives Will is a better understanding of his own life as well as the incentive, and as it turns out the mechanism, to fully appreciate every single day.
Admittedly, the film is a tad uneven in tone, mixing the knockabout comedy of the first twenty minutes (where Will and the audience are introduced to the possibilities of time travel) with a more sombre mid-section that extends the relationship drama to include other family members. While the drama and the comedy work on their own (there’s the funny moment when Will uses his power to make love with Mary several times, each time ensuring the next is better based on her increasingly exhausted reaction) there isn’t a seamless blend between the two. That’s where the unfortunate reality of Curtis being a far better writer than director comes to the fore; a more assured hand behind the camera would no doubt have insisted on a few script edits and streamlining.
The film is helped, of course, by the delightful Rachel McAdams who could play these sorts of roles in her sleep. The ravishing Canadian actress has a magnetism made all the more potent by a beguiling smile and elfin grace. Importantly, Domhnall Gleeson, in the role that sees him successfully transition from support act to leading man, has that Curtis-esque English awkwardness (with the stop-start nerves and understated social standing) that Hugh Grant was so good at. Vanessa Kirby and Tom Hollander also stand out for special praise.
Ultimately though, About Time’s drawbacks add up to its charm. It doesn’t have the schmaltz that turned so many off Love Actually so its fleeting moments of humour interspersed amongst the harsh realities of contemporary life leave you feeling fulfilled not holding back urges to throw up. When it wants to be funny (and we know just how good Curtis is at prodding relentlessly at the funny bone), it really is, and when it wants to take a contemplative step back, lowering the tone, it does so with a sincerity that warms the heart.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Richard Curtis
Written by: Richard Curtis
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie
Released: 2013 / Genre: Comedy-Drama / Country: UK / IMDB