Richard Curtis’ latest film About Time only pretends to be a time travelling rom-com. Really it’s a touching drama about fathers and son. Yes, it’s shamelessly sentimental, manipulative, and no doubt falls apart if examined too closely, but above all it works.
The plot concerns Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), who is told by his father (Bill Nighy) that the male side of his family have the ability to time travel. After the usual discussions about the butterfly effect and so on, Tim decides to use his newfound ability to get a girlfriend. But the path of true love is obviously not smooth, and in time travelling to unselfishly help others, Tim ends up doing so seemingly to the detriment of his own life, almost George Bailey style.
Speaking of It’s a Wonderful Life, some have foolishly criticised Curtis’ work for its lack of grittiness, but I have always loved his determined optimism, and a Curtis film isn’t meant to be Ken Loach. Here I think he has made his wisest, most mature film to date; closer than ever to the elusive spirit of Frank Capra. This isn’t a film about the quantum physics of time travel. It’s about celebrating people who are kind and good at heart, in spite of their mistakes.
Performances are all very good, especially from Nighy and the excellent Domhnall Gleeson. Some criticised the casting of Rachel McAdams (her second time travelling film), but I thought she was perfectly fine. And there’s some great support from the likes of Tom Hollander, Lindsay Duncan, Lydia Wilson, Richard Cordery and Joshua McGuire.
On a moral and spiritual level, the message of the film is clear: enjoy what is really important in life, ie family, children, love and so forth. As a wise person once said, no-one ever lay on their deathbed wishing they’d spent more time at work. This being Curtisland, money is somewhat naively dismissed as a serious concern in life, but actually there is wisdom in what Nighy tells his son when advising him on the use of his time travelling abilities: the pursuit of money is a trap that ends in perpetual misery.
Another interesting moment comes when Tim is tempted to use his time travelling ability to cheat on his girlfriend (he could simply go back afterwards and make a different choice, retaining full memories of the actual encounter). However instead he literally runs away – a nice illustration of the Bible’s exhortation to flee sexual immorality. Obviously this is all relative to present western secular morality, since he and his girlfriend aren’t actually married at that point but are in a sexual relationship (and the film does contain the usual token Curtis smutty jokes), but you get my general point.
Ultimately, About Time is a lovely piece of work, with charm, warmth and wit to spare. The films of Richard Curtis may be a fantasy (and a largely godless one), but they do introduce you to endearing, likeable characters that you are sad to leave when the end credits roll. Yes, they’re cosy, middle-class and sentimental, but that is exactly why I like them and I make no apology for that.