Director/Screenplay – Richard Curtis, Producers – Tim Bevan, Andrew Davies & Eric Fellner, Photography – John Guleserian, Music – Nick Laird-Clowes, Visual Effects – Prime Focus World (Supervisor – Jon Thum), Special Effects Supervisor – Mark Holt, Production Design – John Paul Kelly. Production Company – Working Title.
Domhnall Gleeson (Tim Lake), Rachel McAdams (Mary), Bill Nighy (James Lake), Lydia Wilson (Kit Kat Blake), Lindsay Duncan (Mary Lake), Tom Hollander (Harry Chapman), Richard Cordery (Uncle Desmond), Margot Robbie (Charlotte), Joshua McGuire (Rory), Vanessa Kirby (Joanna), Will Merrick (Jay), Mitchell Mullen (Mary’s Father Fitz), Lisa Eichhorn (Mary’s Mother Jean), Tom Hughes (Jimmy Kincade), Harry Fadden-Patton (Rupert), Catherine Steadman (Tina), Richard Griffiths (Thomas Sewell), Richard E. Grant (Actor)
Tim Lake grows up in Cornwall with his eccentric family. Upon his twenty-first birthday, Tim is told by his father that all the men of the family have the ability to travel backward in time through their own lives simply by going into a dark place and concentrating. At first thinking this a joke, Tim discovers it to in fact be true. He uses this talent to try and further his way with Charlotte, the girl who comes to stay for the summer season, but fails to succeed no matter how many times he goes back. He moves to London and begins a career as a lawyer. At a restaurant, he meets the American girl Mary but when he goes back in time to help his father’s friend Harry’s play from being a flop, he erases the timeline in which he meets her. He waits at a gallery until he meets her and starts things up again, revisiting the timeline until he is able to create the perfect romance. As the two settle down together and eventually marry, his ability to travel back in time and rearrange events proves both a curse and a blessing.
Richard Curtis is an estimable name in British film and television. Curtis started out as a skit writer on the classic comedy series Not the Nine O’Clock News (1979-1982) but it was his next show Blackadder (1982-9) that gained a cult following. He has written for a number of other hit British comedy shows such as Mr Bean (1990-5) and The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007). On cinema screens, Curtis had a huge hit with his script for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). This has had him pegged as a romantic comedy writer and he has also delivered popular works in this vein such as Notting Hill (1999), Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), as well as the scripts for the Mr Bean films and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011). As director, he has also made Love Actually (2003) and The Boat That Rocked/Pirate Radio (2009).
Curtis has flirted with fantastical material before – he has written two tv specials that enter into fantasy territory with Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988) and Bernard and the Genie (1991), as well as the popular Vincent and the Doctor episode of Doctor Who (2005– ) and the Danny Boyle alternate history film Yesterday (2019). About Time, Curtis’s third film as director, is his first full-fledged genre outing. Reviewers readily compared it to Groundhog Day (1993) in which Bill Murray repeatedly lives the same day over and over, especially the parts where Murray uses the process to keep ironing the bugs out in winning his perfect date with Andie McDowell – although I would argue that resemblances end there and both are different types of time travel stories.
The film that About Time bears the closest resemblance to is The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), which notedly had Rachel McAdams in an almost identical role as the titular wife to Eric Bana who could travel back and forward throughout his own lifetime – the crucial difference there was that Bana could not affect the past, while here the wife also remains unaware of his ability to change events. While The Time Traveler’s Wife played its premise seriously, About Time can be considered the romcom version. Other films such as Twice Upon a Yesterday/The Man with Rain in His Shoe (1998), Mr Nobody (2009) and in particular the much darker The Butterfly Effect (2004) have protagonists being able to mentally go back in time and create divergent pathways within the course of their own lives.
I liked About Time more than I was expecting to. It had the initial feel of a lightweight premise where the principal emphasis would be on the romantic comedy aspect, as opposed to a genre film. That it would be something along the lines perhaps of Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Kate & Leopold (2001) and Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) where the whys and hows of the process are glossed over and the complications presented avoided altogether. This is not quite the case – although there are some problems with the film’s time travel logic that I mention below.
For the most part, About Time is a likeable and appealing film. Domhnall Gleeson seems all nervous and awkward energy, while Rachel McAdams (given a haircut that looks like she is wearing an ill-fitting wig for much of the film) quiet and demure. Yet when the two of them are together they kept working at it until they produce a warmth and sincerity – you could easily believe them as a real-life couple. Gleeson in particular, while never leaving the twitchy awkward persona far behind, does a very convincing job moving from gawky teen to settled down father and seeming entirely convincing in both stretches of the role.
Curtis has also obtained an excellent supporting cast – even down to some well-known actors in throwaway roles in the stageplay – and writes each of the characters with an eccentric likeability. The shoot must have been a ball as you get the impression that everybody was having fun and was encouraged to endlessly improvise. Standout among the supporting cast is Bill Nighy who makes the best of Richard Curtis’s wry, ironic dialogue and eventually makes for a lovely, tender ending – it becomes a film that is just as much romantic comedy as it is one about affection between father and son.
The problem I had with the film was its time travel logic. It is established that Domhnall Gleeson can only travel within his own lifetime. He is also told by Bill Nighy that he can go back and affect events so that they turn out differently. We see this in a couple of scenes where he goes back and edits events to help Tom Hollander’s play from becoming a disaster but finds in so doing that he has erased the timeline in which he meets Rachel McAdams at the restaurant, and a later scene where he goes back to prevent sister Lydia Wilson from being caught in a car crash and returns to the present to find that his child is one he no longer recognises. This part is at least excellent science-fiction.
However, what irritated me was a lack of explanation about some of the logic or else its inconsistent application. It is established that when he goes back, Domhnall Gleeson has to live everything through all over again. In the later scenes, he is able to pop back to his teens and visit Bill Nighy in his last days and they even go for a walk to the beach together with Domhnall as a boy – so does that mean each time he does so he has to live the rest of his life all over again? You get the implication that he is able to somehow able to snap back to the present after such brief visits but this is never clarified. What the film needed somewhere is a scene that shows us how Domhnall pops returns to the present and delineates that he is only able to do so as long as he does nothing to alter what happens in the past. It makes the difference between a clever and reasonably well handled time travel film and one that leaves you sitting through its second half nitpicking its logic.
(Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Bill Nighy) at this site’s Best of 2013 Awards).