Richard Curtis has a new film out and it’s very good. Yes, it is. Ron Swanson reports.
It’s nicely in keeping with Richard Curtis’ films’ apologetically stylised view of England that I’m tempted to start this positive review of his new movie, About Time, with an apology, or more accurately, a justification. It’s tempting to put my emotional reaction to his film down to the fact that I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, or that I was having a bad week, or that the idea of time travel has always made me want to cry. If I knew how to winsomely stutter in print, I would totally give it a go.
As it is, no justification is needed. It may seem like trifling praise indeed, to claim that About Time is Curtis’ best film, but I like Four Weddings, Notting Hill and Love, Actually quite a lot, and this absolutely soars past them. While it may benefit from the lowered expectations caused by the clusterfuck that was The Boat that Rocked and an insipid and oddly charmless trailer, this is a film that makes me hope there’s more to come from Curtis.
About Time is the story of an odd, small, Cornish family whose menfolk harbour an interesting secret – they can travel backwards in time. When Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) has this secret revealed to him, shortly after turning 21, by his father (Bill Nighy), he quickly realises that such a power could help him to get a girlfriend. His first attempts to woo a woman this way are unsuccessful, and he soon accepts that no special power can make someone fall in love with him.
There was a real danger, in my mind, that Curtis would use the time-travel as the basis for a larky, posh-lad sexcapade, similar to the japey rape scene in The Boat that Rocked. That fear was exacerbated by a scene in the trailer in which Gleeson keeps going back, and improving, his first fuck with his eventual soul-mate, Mary (Rachel McAdams). In the film, that scene plays differently to how it does in the trailer, and is the only real example of any such skulduggery.
While Tim begins seeing his power as a way of getting a girlfriend, he quickly settles into the habit of really only using it occasionally, to avoid awkward, or career-threatening situations for his friends and family. Throughout all of this, the journey from awkward naïf, to noble hero, Gleeson plays the part with consummate skill. His shy charm is eminently believable in a way it never entirely was when essayed on screen by Hugh Grant, or even Colin Firth in the surrogate-Curtis role. He’s a credible romantic partner for the gorgeous and eternally lovely Rachel McAdams as well, which is no mean feat.
While their love story is the main selling point for the film, and indeed, it’s most prominent plotline, Curtis is more interested in building a world around his characters than he ever has been before. As such, the two family units in the film are of huge importance – Tim, his sister Kit Kat and their parents; and eventually, Tim, Mary and their kids.
The chemistry between Nighy and Gleeson makes the bond between father and son obvious to all, and it’s their relationship that provides the emotional impetus that marks this out as the director’s best film. Nighy, so often a performer happy to coast on an empty, almost reptilian charm, is better here than I’ve seen him in years. The character, in his hands, is a soulful, kind and funny man. Undoubtedly, Tim and his dad’s relationship is bolstered by their shared secret, but it’s only one aspect, along with their love of skimming stones, friendly games of table-tennis and the Italian song ‘Il Mondo’.
There are lots of elements, and characters, that wouldn’t look out of place in Curtis’ other work, from the lack of non-white faces to the morose but brilliant playwright Harry (Tom Hollander), who Tim moves in with in London. There’s an underlying seriousness to what we’re seeing, though: a feeling that the bitter moments in the film aren’t solely there to make the sweet ones more piquant. For the first time, it feels like Curtis is trying to delve into a realistic range of emotions – I love the fact that he’s chosen to do so in ostensibly his most fantastical film to date.
Not only does he succeed – there were very few dry eyes in either of the screenings I’ve attended – he does so with something to spare, never stepping away from his deliberately understated, apologetic style. What we’re left with is unlikely to win over anyone who finds Curtis’ films aggravatingly twee, or nauseatingly sweet. That love of sentiment, schmaltz and the big emotional moment is still there.
He remains a filmmaker for whom subtlety is an alien concept, but it’s that eagerness to find the empathetic sweet-spot that allows so much of his audience to earn the release that they seek. There’s no sneering to any cynicism in hitting the audience squarely in the tear-ducts; rather it comes from the kind of puppyish eagerness to please that his leading man, in one of the most winning performances of the year, embodies in spades.
Eventually, as well as being a film about love and about family, this is a film about time (hey, neat title). About how difficult time is to cope with when we’re alone, grieving for someone or spending it with the wrong person, but, ultimately, also, about how precious it is when we’re happy, and with the people we love. I’ll forgive most films most things for reminding me of that.