With Thanksgiving nearly upon us, it’s time to start thinking about sitting down with usually scattered family members for a ritual viewing of some favorite Yuletide-themed movie. Many opt for hoary classics like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street; younger audiences often prefer Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s macabre animated tale The Nightmare before Christmas. Some folks have a sentimental attachment to that paean to mid-20th-century suburban materialism, A Christmas Story.
My holiday movie choice will be a revisit to director Richard Curtis’ episodic confection Love Actually, which follows the tangly romantic vicissitudes of a group of Brits over the course of a few weeks before, during and after Christmas. Despite its A-list cast, the film did not exactly meet with universal acclaim upon its 2003 release; in fact, it was savaged by some reviewers for being too dark and cynical and by others for being too sentimental. And yet it has found a special place in the hearts of many, and bears up well under repeated viewings.
Director/screenwriter Curtis is also well-known for such successful feature films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary and War Horse, plus his TV work on iconic comedies like Mr. Bean, The Vicar of Sibley, Not the Nine O’Clock News and Blackadder. In 2010 he stuck a first toe into the waters of Dr. Who, which may be what got him thinking about time travel.
That’s ostensibly the subject of Curtis’ latest film, About Time. But, like the best movies in that genre, time travel here is more of a MacGuffin – an arbitrary plot gimmick that enables the examination of more universal themes. About Time is really about regrets, and about the emotional price to be paid for trying to avoid them. If humans had the option of going back for “do-overs” of moments that we bungled, according to this film, the most that we could hope for would be learning a little more quickly than via normal life experience that it’s best to live life fully one day at a time.
The protagonist of About Time is Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a sweet-but-awkward young man who keeps striking out with girls. When Tim turns 21, his father (Bill Nighy), a retired university literature professor, informs him that all the men in the family have the innate ability to travel backwards (but never forwards) in time. Dad explains that the gift can’t be used to change history in meaningful ways, but can be used to fine-tune one’s life.
Cautioning that certain forebears had turned into horrible human beings by using time travel in pursuit of wealth, his father tells Tim that he personally used his ability mostly to read more books than would normally be possible in a lifetime. It becomes progressively clearer throughout the film that he also placed very high priority on spending more time with his family, which seems improbably harmonious despite the presence of a benignly daft uncle (Richard Cordery) and a daughter (Lydia Wilson) who keeps making self-destructive life choices.
Tim’s priority – the “mothership,” as he puts it – is to find a serious girlfriend. Beginning with a summerlong visit to the family’s Cornwall beachfront home by his sister Kit Kat’s knockout friend Charlotte (Margot Robbie), Tim tinkers with his courtship missteps, only to discover that he can’t artificially exercise control over other people’s feelings. Moving to London to take up a law practice, Tim moves in with his father’s old friend Harry, a misanthropic struggling playwright amusingly played by Tom Hollander.
Eventually Tim meets cute (in a pitch-dark restaurant) with the woman of his dreams: funny, affectionate, insecure Mary (Rachel McAdams, who has trodden these paths before in The Time-Traveler’s Wife). But he loses her phone number when he jaunts back to relive that same evening at a theatre where Harry’s latest play has just bombed because a key actor blanked out on his lines.
Distraught over his missed chance, Tim resorts to all manner of time manipulation to get back into Mary’s good graces (not to mention her memories). And here’s where we encounter the dark side of Richard Curtis’ sense of humor, so familiar from Love Actually: Our essentially good-hearted young hero becomes, arguably, a stalker as he tries desperately to flag down that mothership. Though he manages to win Mary’s heart, it’s by cheating, temporally speaking.
Some viewers may feel queasy at the terms under which this fairytale romance is constructed, but the “rightness” of the match comes across so clearly onscreen. Wooing Mary successfully is barely the beginning of his odyssey, which, in accordance with the time-travel rules explicated by his Dad, is bound to teach Tim a whole lot more about the importance of relationships – especially within families.
If the chemistry between Gleeson and McAdams is persuasive, even better is that between Gleeson and the cheeky, irrepressible Nighy. About Time is at least as much a father/son bonding story as it is a rom/com, and the scenes between the two – whether contemporary or involving one stepping through the fabric of time for a quick consult with the other – are invariably a joy to watch. We expect no less from Nighy based on his sterling cinematic track record, which memorably includes the loopy, profane, burned-out former rock star Billy Mack in Love Actually.
Gleeson, by contrast, is a bit of discovery. The son of veteran Irish character actor Brendan Gleeson, this is Domhnall’s first lead role in a major feature film; in America he’s best-known for playing Bill Weasley in the last two Harry Potter films and for a fine reading of Levin in last year’s Anna Karenina. But About Time is likely to be remembered as his breakthrough part. With the sort of face that can go from geeky to adorable without reliance on makeup, he brings a naïve earnestness to the role that warms the heart and makes Tim’s sneaking and tweaking seem no worse than any young person’s fumbling attempts at making a good impression on a romantic prospect.
Diehard science fiction geeks probably won’t like About Time; they’ll be too caught up in pointing out the temporal-logic plot holes. But fans of earlier Richard Curtis vehicles probably will. It’s classic heartstring-tugging romantic comedy with a postmodern edge, and will send you home wanting to give those special loved ones an extra hug for the holidays.