Film Review: About Time

About time

Good title. Maybe it's what a lot of Richard Curtis' critics thought when they read about him saying that this was likely to be his last film as a director. Right, that's the gag that's been nagging in my head since I came out of the cinema, now down to the proper review.

Curtis' latest film – he wrote and directed this, whereas he only wrote Four Weddings and A Funeral – adds a science fiction slant to his usual romcom rubric. The basic premise is that lead character Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) – like all the men in his family – discovers that he can travel back in time by going, Narnia-meets-Mr-Benn, into a dark, squashed place, such as a wardrobe. 

There is an odd, ungainly internal logic to this gift though. Why only men? And why can't Tim, for instance, use this power to sort out world poverty? (apart from the fact that it would put Comic Relief out of a job). He can only go back on his own timeline – his timline I suppose you could call it. So he can use his unique talent to woo beautiful women. If he fluffs a chat-up line or a move in bed he simply goes back and gets it bang on. If you've seen Groundhog Day – with Four Weddings muse Andie Macdowell – you will get the drift.

And that's about it. The film charts the journey into adulthood of Tim (the subtitle could be About Tim) from his glorious last summer at home in Cornwall to meeting the perfect (handy for US market) American woman Mary (Rachel McAdams) and setting up home and starting a family himself. Boy, does the plot dart around a bit and not because of the disjointed timelines. Dad tells Tim the family secret on New Year's Day and we don't even see him putting it into action until he is sunbathing with a flaxen-haired houseguest six months later. If it had been me I'd have been busy correcting all of my life's injustices before the Christmas tinsel was taken down. 

But then that seems to be part of the subtext of the film. That you don't need time travel. You should savour life in the moment because, actually, it can be perfect if you have the right attitude (tell that to the unemployed, asylum-seekers or Syrians. Oh, sorry, this is a fantasy). And for Tim – apart from a few conveniently shoehorned dramatic plot-twists, life does seem pretty perfect. Endless summers, the dream law firm job, the acceptably kooky girlfriend, the house that nobody in their twenties could ever afford without a trust fund or bank heist...

Even a virtual tsunami when Tim and Mary marry ends in laughter, jolly japes and grinning, soaked children. There is a nod to the newly weds financially stretching themselves but only a nod – the film would have been more credible if there had been a scene in which Tim travels back in time and breaks the bank at Monte Carlo to pay off the mortgage. Oh, sorry again, it's a fantasy.

And, of course, this being Richard Curtis the whole milieu is as instantly recognisable as a Woody Allen or Mike Leigh movie. Apart from the idyllic seaside scenes we are in West London, where the desirable area of Maida Vale is presumably considered to be roughing it after the dream destination of Notting Hill. If you are looking to speculate on property expect prices of flats in Golborne Road to rocket after this. 

Maybe we should not expect anything different from Curtis. Yet he is such a great writer why doesn't he set something in a different era among a different class or in a different location? He was certainly able to do it with Blackadder (then again, Ben Elton co-wrote that masterpiece and the last thing he did was The Wright Way – About Time is certainly not on that level of awfulness). Maybe he can only write what he knows about these days? Yet the equally privately-educated Jack Whitehall is able to pen a sitcom set in a comprehensive school. It's called using your creative imagination and Curtis has plenty of that. So why does he play so safe in this?

There are simply too many moments that have been done better before. The soppy bits. The sentimental bits. The love-is-all-you-need conclusion has already been done in Love Actually. The big tear-jerker – mild spoiler alert – was done better in Four Weddings. There is no Auden poetry here, but sales of Dickens might surge. There are obviously a few good moments – including a set-piece featuring a 66.6666% reunion of the main Withnail & I cast – but About Time feels very bitty. Like bullet points of a life rather than a story one can get your teeth into.

The cast, however, is faultless. Bill Nighy glides effortlessly through proceedings as Tim's cool, snake-hipped ex-lecturer dad, but then I'd be pretty chilled if like Tim's dad I'd retired at fifty and spent most of my time having dinner on the beach and playing ping pong. Tom Hollander is equally magnetic as the grumpy, frustrated playwright who reluctantly takes Tim under his wing. Domhnall Gleeson - a spelling error in the making as well as a star in the making – is good, but it feels like they've tried too hard to avoid getting in a floppy foppish young Hugh Grant lookalike, going for the ginger fringe option instead. I imagine Curtis looked a little like this before his hair turned white.

About Time is one of those films that, ahem, passes the time but never really hooks you in. When I saw The World's End recently I really enjoyed it, but in my heart of hearts knew it was not quite as good as Shaun of the Dead. There is a veritable Grand Canyon, quality wise, between even Notting Hill and About Time, never mind the benchmark of Curtis-coms Four Weddings. Not a waste of Time, then, but maybe a wasted opportunity if this is to be the last film Curtis directs. Unless you are a male member of the Lake family this is 123 minutes of your life you won't get back.



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