A tightly paced, laugh-out-loud, genuinely moving, time-travel movie? It’s About Time.
This is a film whose marketing campaign does it a great disservice. From the ripe-for-satire, ‘giggling-in-the-rain’ poster, to the emphasis on the casting of ‘big name actress’ Rachel McAdams, right down to the invocation of the spectres of Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994) and Love Actually (2003) – the promotional team for this movie seem to have their minds on something else entirely. Not even the trailer does it justice.
For this film is a beautiful, epic, sweeping tale of Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) and Dad (Bill Nighy), and the wisdom that passes between them. Tim and his family have an idyllic life, in a lovely house by the sea in Cornwall. In addition to Tim and Dad, there’s ‘stoic and rectangular’ Mum (Lindsay Duncan), Tim’s sister – ‘a nature thing’ – Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), and intensely confused and forgetful Uncle D (Richard Cordery). All is as it should be – with the eccentricities of each family member unfolding like so many fragrant blossoms – until Tim’s 21st birthday, when Dad takes him aside to reveal that the men in their family all have a special gift – they can travel in time, only within their own lifetimes, and change things. Having disbelieved and then proven the claim as fact, Tim’s immediate desire is to harness this power for an important goal – getting a girlfriend.
So far, so clichéd. Another movie in which men with power manipulate time and space to possess a passive and oblivious woman, right? Wrong. With a deft stroke of his keyboard, writer/director Richard Curtis dismisses that tired narrative as Tim – try as he might – just cannot achieve the outcome he wants with his first summer crush. Suddenly, we realise that we don’t have the measure of this movie at all. Suddenly, we’re leaning in.
This is the beauty of About Time. Just when it all seems to be falling into the expected place, the film gently changes course and offers an entirely fresh vista. Throughout, it is underpinned by fully formed, wonderfully written sub-plots, which ebb and flow around the main characters, moving their respective stories forward in surprising and particular ways. Most notable is Kit Kat – the force of nature, quietly circling the drain while nobody’s watching.
While the film is anchored around the subtle and warm performance of Gleeson, the stand-outs here are unsurprisingly Bill Nighy and Tom Hollander, who steal every single one of their respective scenes. Nighy hits the perfect note every time, as the man who has life all figured out. A quiet presence onscreen, he nonetheless commands the attention and unfailingly brings the laughs. Hollander – best known to TV audiences as the slightly bumbling Rev, and to international audiences as Cutler Beckett in the blockbuster Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2011) – stomps his way through the film as the bitter, morose, cynical playwright ‘friend’ of Dad, Harry. Both men bring every drop of their formidable talent and impeccable comic timing to bear on their scenes which are, at once, hysterically funny and ever-so-slightly heartbreaking.
Individually, nobody here is doing anything revelatory. Domhnall Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – 2011, Anna Karenina – 2012) is in the lead role that could easily have been filled by Hugh Grant fifteen years ago. Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Shaun of the Dead – 2004, The Constant Gardener – 2005) is Bill Nighy, and Rachel McAdams as Mary (The Notebook – 2004, The Time Traveller’s Wife – 2009, Morning Glory – 2010) is, well, Rachel McAdams. However, in combination, it just works – brilliantly. Richard Curtis conducts this symphony of quirks, connections and unspoken emotion with such confidence and skill as to create what is simply his best work to date, and while the advertising big-wigs may be keen to play off his previous hits, this is very different to what has gone before.
Though there are familiar ‘Richard Curtis themes’ on display – the British man/American woman pairing, for example – this is economical and effective Curtis. He has something to say and he says it, without mincing his words. There is nothing onscreen that doesn’t need to be there – dialogue, laughs, action, sentiment – it is all necessary, all well-paced, and never overdone. The balance between comedy and drama is entirely perfect as Gleeson’s quiet narration carries us through his story – over mounds of laughter and round stirring bends – to deliver us (quite probably in tears) at the end, with the answer.
And the answer is exactly right. About Time, too.