Richard Curtis has suggested, in the run up to the release of About Time, that it’s the last film he will direct. If true, it’s not bringing the curtain down on an extensive movie directorial career – this is just the third feature he’s helmed, after all. Nonetheless, he does sign off with a film that stands defiantly in the face of those who’ve been less than keen on the world that Curtis presents on the screen.
Because arguably, the universe that most of the films Curtis has written and directed are based in is as distinctive as the Marvel framework, or anything of that ilk. It’s a removed slice of Britishness, where generally decent people stumble through slightly unreal situations, that nonetheless feel linked just loosely enough to everyday life. Curtis, almost defiantly, tackles the subject of love, and hiding feelings, and loss. And whilst it’d be disingenuous to say that About Time is a compilation album of Curtis-isms, there’s a sense of the familiar about it, in terms of some of its themes at least.
There’s no Hugh Grant this time though, although Domnhall Gleeson’s character of Tim clearly shares some of his DNA. He struggles to express his feelings in the early stages, and he’s a floppy hairdo away from a sojourn into Notting Hill and Four Weddings territory at first. But then it gradually becomes apparent that Curtis isn’t telling a traditional love story here, and that there’s more to Gleeson’s character than meets the eye.
The conceit that underpins the film – or at least most of the first half of it – is introduced early. Tim’s dad, played by Bill Nighy, reveals that he has the secret of time travel. He shows how it works, gradually reveals that rules of it, and basically this allows Tim to go back to any point in his own life and change things. If you peeked particularly closely at how strictly Curtis enforces his rules, you could fairly easily find holes. But nonetheless, it serves as an interesting device, and it gradually brings Tim into the world of Rachel McAdams’ Mary.
McAdams feels like a Hollywood major leading star in the making. Had Morning Glory been a bigger hit, then her excellent work there would surely have charged her career. She’s charming, witty and excellent again here, and both her and Gleeson make a couple worth rooting for.
But again, that’s not what About Time is really about. Curtis is less about throwing obstacles at the pair here, and it soon becomes clear that a standard rom-com this is not. Instead, he chooses to focus on how a relationship, and family life around it, gradually evolves. And he’s equally as interested here in looking at Gleeson’s character’s relationship with his parents as he is exploring his romances. Curtis also returns to recurring themes of cherishing love, learning from life, noticing the small things and doing something about them. He does this with varying degrees of subtlety, and he’s steadfast about ensuring enough comedy and big laughs come through to temper accusations of syrup.
And About Time is funny. Really funny, in places. Curtis’ ability to write killer lines hasn’t diminished one bit. Nor had his ability to create a collection of characters who you can’t help but warm to. It means when he wants to try and pack an emotional wallop somewhere along the lines, he more often than not succeeds.
Credit too for the steadfastly British supporting cast Curtis assembles. A restrained Bill Nighy is strong and impactful. Tom Hollander, meanwhile, happily swears his way through any scene he’s let near. And we get what turns out to be a poignant final screen pairing of Richard E Grant and the late Richard Griffiths. What was designed as a welcome touch has a real sense of sadness behind it.
That said, it’d be remiss to overlook the collection of problems here. About Time is a lengthy feature, stretching past the two hour mark where it doesn’t feel it should. One or two little elements, such as another relationship for Tim, are hinted at but left. And there’s no avoiding the fact that Curtis doesn’t feel out of his home territory here. It’s a love letter of sorts to Britain and Britishness, with some wonderful Cornish scenery, that draws on themes and tones Curtis has mined many times before.
Furthermore, if you’re looking for the time travel element to inject a science fiction turn, you’ll be disappointed. There’s neither a DeLorean or a TARDIS in sight. If anything, a nod to Narnia is what you’re going to get and not a lot more. The time travel element is a device, and not one used for a second more than it needs to be.
But About Time is still, if you get into it, a charming, funny and emotive piece of work. About Time comes at a stage in Curtis’ career where he doesn’t need to win people over, and nor does he try. Thus, whilst every criticism you can throw at About Time probably has some merit to it, it does still emerge as a fine film from a very distinctive British voice.
About Time is out in UK cinemas on the 4th September.
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