Film Review: ABOUT TIME
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Starring Bill Nighy, Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Richard Cordery
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nicky Kentish Barnes
Cinematography by John Guleserian
Music by Nick Laird-Clowes
Written and Directed by Richard Curtis
What if people could travel back in time and improve certain aspects of their lives?
It’s an intriguing question–and the classic, great American comedy “Groundhog Day,” now celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2013, was not the first film, television show, novel or short story to address that query, and that’s not taking anything away from the genius and brilliance of “Groundhog Day”–and it’s a question that indeed has been addressed in hundreds of films, television shows, novels, short stories, stage plays, comic books and even videos and short films through the decades. And it is a baffling, continually challenging question that will intrigue us, haunt us, taunt us and, yes, still entertain us through the ages–as the brilliant, instantly-classic “About Time” intelligently, wonderfully and entertainingly displays in all its glory, instantly establishing itself as a great film in this continually interesting genre.
Sometime this weekend, or next week or next weekend, drop your current plans and go to your nearest theater–yes, this is a cliche, and it’s a well-intentioned cliche–and just go see “About Time,” which is intelligently written and humanely, emotionally directed by the brilliant Richard Curtis. “About Time” is excellent on every level–acting, writing, direction, production design, storytelling, imagination, inventiveness, uniqueness, character and story development, morals, messages, themes, life lessons, insight, emotion, editing, timing, pacing and music. Two especially stand-out aspects of “About Time” are even Academy Award-worthy—Bill Nighy for best actor, and Curtis for best original screenplay.
“About Time” is one of the best films of 2013, and one of the best romantic comedies in years.
It is a rare film that is able to take such an established, familiar and well-worn storytelling and plot technique–having people be able to travel back in time and improve certain aspects of their lives and the lives of others, as well–and improve on that fantasy and science fiction technique, add something to it, make it your own, make it original and unique, make it entertaining, and make it all seem new, inventive and fresh. That is what “About Time” accomplishes, and that is what “Groundhog Day” accomplished twenty years ago, in 1993.
So no one–that means no one–should be comparing “About Time” to “Groundhog Day” on a harsh level, or nitpicking about this familiarity or that, or complaining that it’s borrowing from that film–when it is not–or whining that it’s a rehash or redoing–which, again, “About Time” is not. That’s like saying–incorrectly–that “Star Wars” (1977) was the first film to utilize certain science fiction storytelling aspects–which George Lucas has openly said it is not, and he has said repeatedly that he borrowed generously from the films of his youth, including many terrible B-movies–or saying that “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) was the first zombie movie, which is incorrect, considering that zombie movies go back literally to the beginning of film. The point here is that numerous storytelling techniques are used by hundreds of filmmakers and novelists and playwrights over and over again, and it’s not for anyone to nitpick that point, but to examine whether the latest version of each technique, or genre, is, once again, orginal, inventive, fresh and new in its approach, storytelling, acting and directing.
And that brings us right back to where and how “About Time” succeeds so well.
In the film, Tim (wonderfully and understatedly played by a young, boyish but quite smart Domhnall Gleeson, who is 30 but looks incredibly younger here), is initially presented as a quite likeable, red-haired, thin and overall appealing young British man of 21–somewhat shy and reserved, somewhat bumbling, somewhat socially awkward, but lovably lovable and likeable and, in a most down-home and normal manner, cute and attractive to the ladies and friendly and approachable to guys. Tim suddently discovers early in the film, from his equally lovable and likeable genius of a Dad (Bill Nighy, in a performance so likeable, so understated, so smart, so funny and so approachable and insightful, you just want to hang out with his character), that the men in the family–only the men–can travel back in time.
There are some rules–and, in a very real way, it doesn’t really matter what the rules are, whether they are followed, or whether they are broken or whatever, because this is not really what the film is really about–and the rules state that only the men in the family have the gift; the men have to travel backwards in time but not forwards; you come back to the time and moment that you had just left; you can only change certain things in your own, specific life; and there is no horrific, terrible, universe-altering “butterfly effect” that will change everyone into lizards, cause World War Z, or cause everyone to speak another language, apologies to Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov and every other science fiction writer who were strict about time travel rules. Well, sometimes in fiction, fantasy and science fiction, rules are made to be broken. Sorry Ray and Isaac, but knowing their thoughts and their intellects, they would just love and embrace “About Time.” The rule-breaking is allowable here, all of you time-travel fanatics.
But again, the time travel thing in “About Time” is simply a plot device, and it is not approached or dealt with or considered in any way as hard-core science fiction here, and the rules, in a way, don’t really matter. Actually, the time travel doesn’t really matter on a deeper, psychological and insightful and moral-giving level throughout the film. What really, strongly and mainly matters in “About Time” is what Tim and his father and others learn about life, love, relationships, family, friends, acquaintances, children, parents, sisters, uncles and the primary things in life that really matter, which were just stated. Life, love, relationships, family, friends–these essentials, you learn, are what matter most in life. And this is part of what Tim and Dad learn, and that’s not giving anything way. It is how they and others learn these lessons that is the brilliance of the film.
These essential, important, basic ingredients of life–which Richard Curtis has a special gift for understanding, examining, dissecting, presenting and enjoyably displaying in great, above-average, insightful works of fiction—are what “About Time” focuses on. Curtis was the screenwriter of several of the best screen romantic comedies of the last twenty years: “Four Weddings and Funeral” (1994); “Notting Hill” (1999); “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (2001); and the exceedingly touching and wonderful “Love Actually” (1993). Curtis also directed “Love Actually” and produced “Four…” and “Notting Hill.” Obviously, clearly, plainly, this is a man who understands people, love, relationships and the unique, special qualities, quirks and characteristics that make people real people. He also understands something very basic–how to write, direct and present characters who are, again, lovable and likeable. And these days, in modern-day filmmaking, with so many film characters–and, oddly, often leading characters–being presented as annoying, irritating, juvenile, childish, screaming, mentally-stunted and decidedly unlovable and unlikeable morons, it’s a pleasant surprise to see not only the lead characters, but most of the characters, lead and supporting, presented throughout “About Time” and Curtis’ other films, as joyfully, refreshingly lovable and likeable.
Tim is presented early as lovable and likeable, so the audience is instantly hooked as to what Tim will do with his time-travel power, what he will do with his life, and what he will learn. The same applies to dear old lovable Dad–what does he do with his power, too, and what does he do with his life, and what does he learn? The answers to those questions cannot be fully answered here–as the subsequent live travails and travels of Tim and his family are what make up the true story of “About Time,” that is what supplies the plot, story arc, character arcs, and story and character development that follows after that initial informational talk between Dad and Tim. For it’s not so much the time travel gimmick, but what everyone learns from the consequences of Tim and Dad’s travels that the film revels in and examines.
At the start of the film Tim lives with Dad and his tough, independent, middle-aged hippychick Mom (toughly, strongly and impressively portrayed by Lindsay Duncan; Dad’s also a bit of a hippy, progressive, liberal guy, in a non-steretypical and intelligent manner), as well as his wild-child sister Kit-Kat (played dangerously, edgily and energetically by the spry, wiry Lydia Wilson) and his just huggable and endearingly well-dressed and well-mannered Uncle Desmond (Richard Cordery) in a sprawling, beautiful, comfortable seaside house. But Tim, a lawyer, is 21, and itching to make his way in the world, and, like many 21-year-old British youths, he leaves the nest to make his way in big, bustling London. There, Tim meets the radiant, down-home, approachable and, yes, lovable American proofreader Mary (the name is not really symbolic, so don’t go searching; she’s just Mary), wonderfully played by a cute, pretty Rachel McAdams in a stand-out career role. It’s love at first site, and McAdams is so darn cute and pretty here, you don’t blame Tim for one second for pursuing her as aggressively and confidently as he does.
And this is where the real plot kicks in. “About Time” examines life through Tim’s eyes and mind and experiences: His relationship with Rachel, his growing, maturing relationship with Dad, Mom, Kit Kat and Uncle Desmond, and his friendships with a motley crew of similarly young, bumbling but endearing group of friends. Yes, Gleeson’s performance brings to mind some aspects of Hugh Grant in “Love Actually” and some aspects of Simon Pegg in his films–and that’s welcome and great. Grant was likeable in “Love…” and Pegg has been likeable in his films, especially as the hapless, down-on-his-luck, instant-hero in “Shaun of the Dead.”
Although Gleeson and McAdams carry most of the film, and are present in most of the film’s scenes, it is really Bill Nighy that slyly, smartly steals the film. Dad is just so smart, so insightful, and such a mentor, educator, teacher, father-figure and, yes, friend to Tim, and to Mary, you relish the scenes with Nighy. This is a performance that many actors simply could not pull off, and it’s a testament to the talented Nighy that he scores well with this portrayal. Sometimes, showing love and affection can be as simple as a knowing look, a wink, some soothing words, some kindly advice–or just a game of ping-pong.
McAdams could slide by on her cute, all-American, girl-next-door (yes, cliches, but it applies here) cutey-pie looks, but she doesn’t. She portrays a girl who suddenly realizes this guy, Tim, is gold, the real deal, and a real catch. He is smart, cute, likeable, affectionate, and he obviously truly loves Mary. The film’s early scenes showing the evoling relationship between Tim and Mary are handled so earnestly and honestly, you almost feel like you’re eavesdropping on some people’s private times and private lives. But you also like these people, again, so you want to spend time with them. Again, this is Curtis drawing you inside and in-depth in the film and allowing you to like the main characters, so you latch onto these characters and care about them.
Eventually, Tim learns such important life lessons, and Dad also learns life lessons, that the film grows and evolves into a study of life, love and family that will move you, stir your emotions, make you laugh and cry (cliche, yes, but appropriate here), and make you think deeply about your spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend, your friends and acquaintances and co-workers, your life in general, your emotions and feelings and relationships with your family and friends and with people in general, and, well, about time. The time we all have here on this planet, the time we have with the various people in our lives, the time we have with those we love and like and care about.
Life and time can be so fleeting. We’re all just floating around in time, as the film states (paraphrasing here), and we learn, sometimes too late, that life is short and time is short and life and time are precious. So take the time today to tell those who you like that you like them; that those who taught you and helped you and mentored you just how much you appreciate their support and help; that those who you care about, just how much you care about them; and, most importantly, take the time to tell those who you love, just how much you love them.
Time can go by so fast. You just don’t know what tomorrow brings. So make the most of every day in life and time. That, in the end, is what “About Time” is really all about. And we all learn that the time we have now is the time that is most important in life.