Richard Curtis makes romantic comedies that operate comfortably within the constraints of the genre and also, most often, transcend them. His films, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, never feel cookie cutter and in their best moments, offer insights not only into the complexities of love, but also about the story conventions that reinforce our assumptions about it.
Curtis’ latest effort is About Time, a romance with science-fictional overtones that takes up themes beyond the typical boy-meets-girl story, looking also at father-son relations and the sense of loss that is mandated by passing time. If Tim Lake’s (Domhnall Gleeson) love for Mary (Rachel McAdams) provides the central plot, his love for his father (Bill Nighy) shapes it. When Tim turns 21, his dad lets him in on a family secret, that all the Lake men have the ability to travel in time.
This premise immediately brings to mind the tragic character in The Time Traveller’s Wife, a man genetically predisposed to travel in time, but has little control over how it happens. (This comparison is all the stronger due to the fact that McAdams is the love interest in both films.) However, in About Time, the character trait is completely manageable. Tim travels only when he chooses to, by simply going into a dark space, clenching his fists and thinking about the time where he wants to go.
Of course, this being a time travel movie, we’re expected to overlook such ludicrous mechanics, and instead focus on the effects the traveler has on the past and, in turn, his own future. Viewers with any experience in time travel stories may expect that the so-called butterfly effect—the simplest changes in the past can ripple to extreme changes in the future—is in play. This effect sets up such stories’ frequent focus on existential questions, and lead travelers to pursue specific ends, like preventing the apocalypse (The Terminator) and horrific disaster (Source Code) or ensuring that the central character is born and so allow a franchise to go on (Back to the Future).
About Time comes at time travel from an angle that at first seems more intimate and even a little mundane. Upon learning of his gift, Tim decides he can use it to get a girlfriend. As he says, for him it was always going to be about love. After a couple of failed attempts to force the issue through time travel, Tim meets the love of his life, Mary, in a conventional way. He is seated next to her randomly at a unique restaurant where the meal is served in complete darkness by blind waiters. They fall for each other without ever seeing each other in the kind of charming sequence that is the trademark of Curtis’ work.
It can’t be that simple though, and Tim throws a wrench in the works when he’s trying to help a family friend, Harry (Tom Hollander), make a go of his playwriting career and inadvertently erases his meeting with Mary. Another film might make fixing that problem into Tim’s central plotline, but About Time dispenses with it relatively quickly. Instead, it is focused on the bigger question about how time travel can affect the whole of a life, and, just as importantly, lives that are related to that life.
This is where the film shifts about halfway through from a light comedy to a weightier, but never overbearing, philosophical puzzle. Tim’s father has spent a lifetime figuring out the best way to manage his gift, and the insight he offers his son is both touching and surprising. Just as Curtis’ romantic comedies avoid many clichés, About Time dispenses with the usual time travel story’s climactic race against the clock. Instead, it takes its own time, becoming a meditation on what time means to individuals and how we might appreciate the moment rather than looking for ways to change it.