“About Time” isn’t quite your typical Richard Curtis fare – it feels a little different from “Notting Hill”, “Love, Actually” and “Four Weddings And A Funeral”. It’s more a romantic fantasy than a comedy and although some of the Curtis archetypes are present – kooky vulnerable sibling, curmudgeonly morose cynic, quirky bumbling relative – they’re more muted than usual and almost entirely superfluous to the plot.
On his 21st Birthday, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is let in on his family’s biggest secret: the men in his family have the ability to travel in time. Only backwards in time, and only within your own lifespan, but still – pretty cool. Tim immediately uses this ability to try and sort out his ailing love life, with mixed results and up to this point, events unfold as you would expect in a Curtis romcom. When Tim meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), however, the film settles into a romantic, gentle drama as we follow the couple through the ups and downs of life, love and family.
You have to wonder how much of Richard Curtis’ latest movie occurred to him during his spell writing the excellent “Vincent And The Doctor” episode of “Doctor Who”. Certainly some of the casting did, as the always watchable Bill Nighy turns up as Tim’s dad. In fact, there’s nothing really to suggest he’s not the same character he played in “Doctor Who”, which would actually be a very nice touch. The cameos of Richard E Grant and Richard Griffiths (in his last film role) are knowing nods to “Who” as well, adding to Nighy’s presence and creating a trinity of could’ve-been Doctors.
The “Doctor Who” connections aside, Sci-Fi purists are going to have real problems with the time travel in this film, especially when the film itself is content to violate the few rules it bothers to set down. The ‘butterfly effect’ is literally dealt with by some narrative hand waving, although aspects of it do crop up later to impact the story. But despite its omnipresence in the story, time travel is not the driving force of the story here. There is no building up to a finale in which time travel ‘saves the day’. In fact, there are several moments in which it’s made clear that time travel categorically cannot save the day. The moral here is not about using the ability to alter the past to create the perfect life but instead to see and appreciate everything and everyone around you for the wonders that they are and make the most of the time you’ve got.
Domhnall Gleeson is solid and likeable as a substitute Hugh Grant (for that is what he is in “About Time”) and has enough natural charm that he wins you over despite the film constantly making the comparison unavoidable, narration and all), and Rachel McAdams is perky and appealing as the ultimate object of Tim’s affections. After all being the partner of a time traveller is a role she’s made her own three times now (“The Time Traveller’s Wife”, “Midnight In Paris” and now “About Time”). Bill Nighy is as dependable as ever, and his lugubrious easygoing charm gets the movie over and through its patchy first half hour. There’s not much else for the rest of the cast to really do but what there is they do it well enough not to intrude on the central story or Tim and Mary.
The plot’s internal logic will quickly wilt under anything but the most cursory of examinations, but this film will likely prompt many discussions about what you would change if you could go back and alter the past. It may also make you wonder how much honesty and equality there is in a relationship where one partner can alter time and change the past as he sees fit but it’s probably best not to think about that.
A relatively undemanding, romantic way to pass a couple of hours, “About Time” isn’t going to make anyone’s list of classic romances, time travel tales or comedies but it’s heart’s in the right place, even though its temporal mechanics are not.