Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Richard Curtis
Stars: Bill Nighy, Domhnall Gleeson, Joshua McGuire, Lindsay Duncan, Lydia Wilson, Margot Robbie, Rachel McAdams, Richard Cordery, Tom Hollander
Released: 4th September 2013 (UK)
Maybe it is the point I’m at in my life, maybe it was the non-existent expectations, or maybe it is the simple fact that there is true emotion coming through on screen that translates to the audience in spades, but any way you cut it, About Time bowled me over and hit me like a ton of bricks. Billed simply as a romantic comedy I should have known to expect more upon seeing that Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Pirate Radio) wrote and directed the film and has also said this would be his final directorial effort, that we were in for something magical. For all intents and purposes the film looked to be nothing more than a light romantic comedy with the twist of time traveling all of which was plagued by the fact star Rachel McAdams had already starred in a movie where the central conceit was that her husband involuntarily time traveled causing all kinds of problems with their marriage. Still, despite these pre-conceived notions, I was more than anxious to see Domhnall Gleeson (Anna Karenina, Bill Weasley) get a leading role and the supporting cast of top notch British talent wasn’t so off-putting and neither was the fact it was obvious the film would have that native sense of charm that director Curtis effortlessly sprinkles throughout each of his projects. It was watching the film progress, feeling it move in on you and being completely taken aback when you realized you were watching something truly great that took me by surprise. The pure characterization of these people brought to the forefront and developed so well throughout that we genuinely feel we’ve been on a journey with them, that we’ve come to be a part of their close-knit family gives the film the ability to transcend its time traveling plot device and help us understand the point it is trying to make with said device rather than succumbing to the inherent hokey nature it usually implies. This is a film about life and it is as equally funny, warm, heartbreaking and uplifting as any single day of any of our lives might be. It is a truly moving film that I didn’t see coming, but am keen to place as one of my favorites of the year. It struck a chord no other film this year has and has serious replay value, something I’ve not been able to mention much at all this year. Hats off to you, Mr. Curtis.
From a script that is easy to see hits very to close to home for Curtis we first meet Tim (Gleeson) as he hits his 21st birthday and learns of the secret that the men in his family have the ability to travel through time. His father (Bill Nighy) has been doing it for years, mainly to find extra time to read and finds it difficult to convey this family secret without sounding completely ridiculous. Once Tim tries it out though, by going into a dark place, clenching his fists, and thinking of a specific moment, he realizes this is no elaborate joke. Initially, he uses it for small things such as going back to make himself look all the cooler in front of what he believes is the love of his life in his sister Kit Kat’s (Lydia Wilson) best friend, Charlotte (Margot Robbie), who comes to stay with their family one summer. The summer goes by with no initial spark between the two of them despite the fact Tim uses his new skill to the max.; there is simply no manufacturing what isn’t naturally there. And so, Tim moves into the city getting a job as a lawyer and rooming with one of his dads old playwright friends, Harry (the always hilarious Tom Hollander), and trying desperately to meet a girl who might make his life whole. Tim states at the beginning that for him, it was always going to be about love and staying true to his word when he first encounters Mary (McAdams) he is not only completely smitten, but when he goes back in time to change the circumstances of a horrible opening night for Harry he undoes the whole event and is forced to meet her all over again. This, as you might imagine, gives way to a few complications but Tim eventually is afforded the opportunity to win her heart again and the two take off on a whirlwind romance where it’s as if they know they are meant to be together and therefore embrace it rather than constantly worrying, constantly suspecting one another, but always loving one another without condition or worry because if there’s one thing certain in each of their insecure worlds it’s that they love each other. Not only was this refreshing because the eyes of cynicism are nowhere to be found, but because we truly believe in the genuine nature of the relationship these two have and the relationship we build with each of the characters on screen.
There is a large amount of sentiment going on here and I didn’t expect to be as swept up in the world of these characters as I became, but that is essentially why we become so attached to certain films and About Time, for me is a movie that took me in and made me a part of the experience, a part of the family it was discussing and dissecting. It is at once very specific to the people, the nature of their lives and the circumstances they find themselves in but also has the ability to hit a part of each of our hearts and minds that will allow the audience members to see themselves in the world of Tim and Mary. While these two are at the center of the films action the supporting cast is what brings the atmosphere around to its full potential. Bill Nighy comes to mind first as Tim’s father. Nighy has always been a charming presence no matter what world he is surrounded by, but in this comfort zone of a character he shines through and gives the patriarch presence real depth and a relationship with his son that makes us want to keep his company. He is wise, he has used his ability not to make himself rich, not to help him live a life of lavish luxury, but to allow him the opportunity of seeing the world through the mind of Charles Dickens two times over. There is a peaceful understanding to everything around him, a kind of sense that makes him aware of when he is present in the “good old times” that brings his ability the advantageous aspect of truly cherishing his life and that is what Curtis is trying to get across. He hopes to pass this realization onto Tim, but not by shoving it down his throat and not by manipulating what he can and cannot do with his new found gift. He simply allows Tim to live his humbly-aspired life trusting that once he has met Mary he will have found a way to appreciate the small things from day to day; never growing tired of seeing the face that swept him away the first time he laid eyes on it. And not just Nighy, but Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s Mum, Richard Cordery as Uncle D, and Joshua McGuire as Tim’s new best friend Rory all shine through and assist in making About Time as equally hilarious and genuine as it is sappy and familiar at times. It is familiar, but not in the way that we’ve seen it all before, moreover in that our lives aren’t going to be perfect no matter what powers we possess and that if it’s not one thing it will be another, but it is those challenges that build us and make us who we are.
As for Tim and Mary though, both Gleeson and McAdams are at the same time equipped to handle this material and their characters while at the same time being expected and non-conventional. McAdams has played these roles before whether it be in aforementioned time-traveling romance or bigger hits like The Notebook and The Vow while Gleeson is not your typical leading man. What reverses expectations a bit is the fact Tim isn’t that kind of Matthew McConaughey leading man in who he truly is otherwise why would the need to travel through time be crucial or exciting? Tim is a regular guy and Gleeson is able to play that well, he understands Tim’s shortcomings and what makes his character specific to him as opposed to falling into a generic group of people as McAdams Mary resembles more closely as she easily defines the hipster generation that likes to be comfortable but rebelliously vintage at the same time. As Tim is our narrator in this piece we naturally feel closer to him from the start while it takes longer for us to accept Mary as an authentic personality rather than just an archetype. Small qualms aside though, Gleeson and McAdams do form an unexpectedly charismatic duo that doesn’t send fireworks shooting off into the sky the first time they meet, but are instead forced to have that first moment several times to emphasize the awkwardness and insecurity of their personalities that might have otherwise resulted in them either never meeting in the first place or being to bashful to follow-up with one another. Tim’s ability gives him the confidence to go up to Mary and address her with the advantage of already being comfortable around her and deflating the possibility of this cinematic venture following the same path every typical romantic comedy wanders down. There is a moment in the film, about halfway through, when Charlotte comes back into play and I feared that all the potential, all the good will this film had built up during its first act was going to be squandered on this standard archetype that would see Tim do something stupid and would cause Tim and Mary to have to rebuild and reconcile for the second hour of the film. I won’t say what the results are, but I think it obvious by my rating of the film that About Time doesn’t give us a world where the success or failure of one relationship isn’t what everything hinges on, but instead this is an experience that takes in every aspect of life and the grand improvisational nature of what we hope for but most of the time never see coming.
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