This isn’t the first time Richard Curtis has written a time travel story (the Blackadder special Back & Forth and some Doctor Who), but as he’s now best known for his increasingly nauseating romantic comedies such as Love Actually, it’s no surprise to see that, even though About Time does contain a fantastical element, the time travel is mainly just a plot device used to explore human relationships.
Domhnall Gleeson stars as Tim, in a bumbling but big-hearted Brit role that could have easily been played by a ginger Hugh Grant a couple of decades ago. He’s grown up in a lovely big house by the coast in Cornwall, and is getting ready to move to London to start his new career as a lawyer when his father (Bill Nighy) drops something of a bombshell on him; he, like all the men in his family, can time travel.
His father’s quick to point out that he can only go back, not forward, and only within his own life. Naturally, once getting over the initial shock, Tim uses his ability to try and sleep with an attractive house guest, though this being a Curtis film, he professes his all-encompassing love for her first.
After some time in London, where he bewilderingly appears not to have used his ability for career advancement, he meets a girl (Rachael McAdams – who also starred in The Time Traveller’s Wife) on a night out. Unfortunately, due to absent-mindedly time travelling, he loses her number and has to try and find her.
About Time invites inevitable comparisons to the sublime Groundhog Day in its courting scenes, as Tim replays elements of their first date over and over until he gets it perfectly correct. It’s certainly amusing in places but while Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors was presented as an arrogant, selfish, egotistical man at first, Curtis would like you to think Tim is completely earnest. It does add a fundamental element of dishonesty to their relationship, and again, unlike in Groundhog Day, McAdams never questions how he knows her exact opinions on things without being told.
And now to the nit-picks, yes any time travel movie is likely to run into logical problems at some point or other but at least most seem to be trying to stay within their internal boundaries, About Time has no such concerns. Nighy lays down the ground rules at the beginning and adds to them a couple of times throughout, but the events of the film directly contradict his statements on more than one occasion. There is one particular moment that’s well thought out at first and quite a shock. After his Dad explains to Tim how this has occurred it appears it could have serious effects on the rest of the story, but the film soon reverses this, completely in conflict to what the character has just said. These internal inconsistencies also mildly add to the central couple’s relationship imbalance, as it’s established he can demonstrate his power but still refrains from telling the supposed love of his life about it.
Still, a lot of these problems don’t reveal themselves immediately and it’s not too hard to get swept up in the lovely romantic montages, and the charming Gleeson makes Tim a very relatable character that’s easy to root for. There are a good number of eccentric supporting players too, who range from very funny (Tim’s angry playwright landlord) to misjudged (his forgetful uncle). While a lot of About Time progresses like a more typical Curtis romance with a fantastical twist, it gets all the rom-com elements over and done with quite promptly, and really evolves into something else come its third act.
In it latter section, About Time shifts its focus from just being on Tim’s pursuit of romance as he grows up to exploring his whole life and his relationships with all those around him, particularly with his father, and it’s here where the film’s true power lies. We see boy-meets-girl stories all the time but rarely see father-son relationships featured in the way they are here. There’s a perfectly timed and subtly handled jump cut towards the end of the film that’s far more emotionally effecting than any of Curtis’s sentimental dialogue has ever been.
About Time is a film that you really just have to go with, if you can get past its terrible time-travel logic and subsequent plot holes, its shaky mid-section leads to some wonderful moments in its final act, making it far more a film about growing up than about falling in love.