The best movies dealing with time travel either refuse to use their core conceit as a crutch for lazy writing or go full on into the fantastical and whimsical. Much like monster movies and musicals, films that use time travel as a plot device can go anywhere they want to since the very concept can’t really be proven or disproven. And yet, time shifting narratives are often the hardest things to pull off with any degree of satisfaction. So it’s quite the relief that Richard Curtis’ About Time – which is still in terms of schmaltz and heartstring tugging sentiment very much a work of the person who made it – works as well as it does. It might be the first time travel film to accurately show how most people would use such a plot device in their own real life timelines.
On his 21st birthday, socially awkward Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that all the men in his family have the ability to travel through time, simply by way of locking themselves in a pitch black room, balling up their fists, and merely concentrating on the time they want to go back to. They can go back to any point in their lives that they have already lived, not before or after. Warned about trying to use his gifts for selfish monetary gain, Tim decides to use his newfound powers for love. When he meets the girl of his dreams (Rachel McAdams) quite naturally and he eventually begins a relationship with her that lasts for years, his devotion to friends and family and his desire to watch no ill befall them always runs afoul of his core desires.
Curtis certainly knows his way around romance given his pedigree with Notting Hill and Love Actually, but here the romance, while adorable and well acted by the leads, almost takes a backseat entirely to the shockingly touching familial aspects of the story’s second half. It’s almost like there are two different films going on back to back with the same protagonist. Beyond the halfway point of the film, it doesn’t matter that Tim was once unlucky in love because he has used his gifts to find a way to meet a girl, misplace a girl because he helped a friend keep his play from tanking, and then get her back in a somewhat unrepentantly selfish, but not misanthropic manner. There’s something “traditional” about the film’s romance that might rankle some, but it’s ultimately satisfying because Curtis doesn’t belabour or drag out the obviousness of it all.
To Curtis’ credit, in the film’s first half he never lets his protagonist off the hook for his selfish ways, always finding new ways to subvert expectation. With every trip to the past, it’s easy to see there are going to be consequences in the future or certain moments that can’t be altered no matter what happens. What makes Curtis’ work here so special is how he isn’t afraid to make his hero look somewhat idiotic, but uses that naivety within Tim for sympathy later on. It’s a film that isn’t so much about the lessons being learned, but about the actual learning process, making it smarter than one might have initially expected.
McAdams is fine as the strong and kindhearted woman always unaware of Tim’s abilities, but as radiant and talented of an actress as she is, the film does kind of slip up by not giving her much to do as their relationship progresses outside of a few more obvious and unavoidable beats. Gleeson, on the other hand, delivers a star making performance after a considerable amount of supporting work in his career. He understands the emotions and pace of Curtis’ script almost perfectly. The film always finds ways to build suspense by placing him into situations where the audience flat out expects the character to make the wrong decision and screw things up terribly (like running into an old crush no matter how hard he tries to avoid her, or later when he’s forced to choose between the well being of his eccentric alcoholic sister and the happiness of his child). But the film almost never goes with the most obvious form of dramatic contrivance, which could be seen as manipulative, but it would be far worse if Curtis always followed through on exact expectations. And Gleeson helps immensely because it’s easy to see the wheels turning in the young man’s head. He obviously isn’t even immediately thinking of using the film’s gimmick, but rather how its use will alter his life from that point on. It’s a nuanced portrayal of a man for once in his life learning how to be thoughtful instead of passively changing the things in his life he wants to try again.
The supporting cast, particularly the members of Tim’s family also add a lot, especially after the romance is kind of kicked to the curb in favour of the film’s real triumph: a look at family that really feels like one of the more realistic and heartfelt uses of time travel possible. While most of us could look inside ourselves to want to change our love lives, it’s hard not to think the same about those who have loved us the longest, or even those closest to us that let us down. Tim has a great and supportive family, led by his loving and blissfully sarcastic father. As Tim’s grounding force and mentor, Nighy (a Curtis regular for obvious reasons since they have such great chemistry as an actor and director) knocks the role out of the park, delivering a performance that always suggests a man grateful more for everyday of his life rather than the gift he has been given and chosen not to abuse. Equally affecting in a role that could have been caricature is Lydia Wilson as Tim’s sister, a woman in need of numerous interventions and constant attention. She’s funny and heartbreaking to watch in equal measure.
For many About Time will ultimately lead to an expected place, but it does so through subverting expectations of the film’s story along the way. It leads to a typically Curtis-ian finale set to a recognizable pop song, but it’s not the maudlin conclusion about love enduring the test of time that gets set up almost immediately. Instead, it ends on a graceful, unashamedly crowd pleasing, tear jerking note that ends up being a quite beautiful moment looking back on love, family, and the little moments and things people take for granted. It’s the kind of film that would drive a true cynic insane, but Curtis creates a fantasy believable and touching enough to want to live in for a couple of hours. It’s all very much on the nose, but damned if it doesn’t perfectly earn the right to be as earnest as it wants to be.