No matter how irreconcilably different we may think ourselves from one another, human beings share some universal experiences that unite us in a grand communal consciousness. We might not all be engaged in politics, but we do all become transfixed by videos of kittens doing pretty much anything. Not all of us care about religion, but the panic that accompanies hitting the ‘reply all’ function transcends all boundaries. And even though we celebrate different holidays, each year we all come together to argue about whether or not Love Actually is actually a terrible film.
It’s just part of the cycle of life.
Every 12 months, around December, a new snowfall of think pieces arrives, either condemning or defending the problematic implications of Richard Curtis’ Christmas-themed anthology film, Love Actually. No doubt with the film’s short pseudo-sequel having been released this past Red Nose Day, a new blizzard of such critiques has filled the air. A good deal of the issues surrounding the film concern its troublesome exploitation of the romantic genre. But whatever issues people may have with Love Actually, they pale into insignificance when compared to one of Curtis’ later, less-discussed projects, About Time: a film that takes this manipulation of genre to some truly horrifying extremes.*
Because I’m a snarky, ranty person on the interwebs who hates joy, I fall rather firmly on the side of criticising Love Actually. Indeed, the whole thing plays out like a collection of malignant narcissistic disorders slathered in carollers and holiday sweaters.
You’ve got the insanity of Colin Firth’s character proposing to a woman that he has literally never had a single conversation with, and a restaurant full of people, including the woman’s family, thinking that’s delightful. There’s the bizarre and disturbing image of everyone repeatedly fat-shaming the Martine McCutcheon character. There are the multiple (multiple!) storylines of male employers pursuing their female employees. There’s a performance by Emma Thompson so stellar that it almost makes you forget that her character is playacting domestic normality to protect the reputation of her cheating husband (played by the always exceptional Alan Rickman). And there’s Liam Neeson’s character, teaching his son to hover awkwardly in the orbit of a girl he likes rather than talk to her, a story that ends with the boy chasing her through an airport to declare his love despite being pretty much a stranger.
This is all before addressing the infamous sliminess of Andrew Lincoln’s character, who — after stealing the spotlight at the wedding of his best friend and filming the bride so obsessively he might actually be a serial killer — decides to dump a selfish truth-bomb on the new wife by confessing his love for her while her husband (again: his best friend) potters around unaware in the next room. The film tries desperately to present this act as sweet, but even once you strip away the stalker vibe, he’s forcing her to share a lie with him that both of them will now forever keep from her husband.
Having said all that, however, I can understand why people like Love Actually.
Despite its undercurrent of sexism and its frequently hideous messages about what constitutes ‘love’, the final package comes soaked in a comforting brine of whimsical hokeyness. By presenting itself as a pastiche romantic genre film, it strip mines every feel-good trope and romantic flick convention ever committed to celluloid — confessions; betrayals; comical embarrassments; awkward meet-cutes; love triangles; public proposals; even rushing to the airport gets dusted off — all this cliché creates its own narrative structure, basking in the reflected glow of its source material. Once you add to that mix a silly amount of astonishing actors and a slathering of sentimental music cues, it’s no wonder the film has fans.
Just like the footage of the airport arrival gate that typifies the film’s naff feel-good philosophy, even though what it’s doing is shallow and manipulative, it’s no surprise that viewers might read such mawkishness as earnest. To stick with the Christmas theme: it’s like a sprig of mistletoe. It forces contrived romantic rituals, but it’s all in fun and ends in a kiss, and some people find that charming.
While Love Actually might walk a risky line though, arguably saving itself from condemnation by embracing its genre tropes, About Time tips straight over into grotesquery precisely because of the motifs it seeks to embrace. About Time, which Curtis both wrote and directed, swaps the stylistic devices of holiday movies and romance films, and replaces them with the mechanics of science fiction, finding a way to exponentially ramp up every ugly subtext by centering its emotional drama around time travel.
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To be fair to About Time, it must be said that genre narratives often romanticise unhealthy relationships. By transplanting human behaviour into the broad metaphors of sci-fi tropes and adventure plotting, what would otherwise be considered unseemly, noxious, or even outright disturbing, can be suddenly given a superficially charming sheen.
In the execrable Twilight novels and films, the watered down gothic trappings of werewolves and vampires obscure the reality that the inert Bella is essentially the victim of an abusive, controlling boyfriend. Strip him of his cheap rip-off-of-Buffy’s-boyfriend mystique and Edward is just a pallid, smug emo weed who invades her space, spies on her while she sleeps, controls her behaviour, and continuously laughs in her face at how naïve he thinks she is. So cuuuuuuuuute.
Not that superhero films are much better, often reducing their female love interests to imperiled arm candy. In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) Peter Parker goes full Spidey Psycho on Gwen Stacey, repeatedly breaking up with her only to then stalk her around the city, finally promising (or threatening?) to not let her leave the country without him, vowing to follow her, forever, wherever she goes. You know it’s true love because it’s objectively terrifying.
Even the 2016 sci-fi film Passengers (spoiler alert) received criticism for making a romantic lead out of a guy so needy that he condemns a woman he doesn’t know — but who he thinks is hot — to die alone with him in the vacuum of space. After all, once she’s awoken her from cryo-stasis she’ll have to date him! He’s literally the only choice for companionship she’ll have for the rest of her life! It’s sweet because he’s locked her in his nightmare space dungeon.
But About Time leaves all of these fictions in the dust.
About Time presents itself as a light-hearted, magic realist jaunt about a young man, Tim (played by Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers that he has the power to travel through time — a gift that the men in his family have all apparently possessed. He can revisit moments in the past and correct mistakes that he once made, thereby overwriting history without anyone realising the change. It’s effectively Quantum Leap (1989) if Dr Sam Becket was a self-involved ass.
Presumably, this premise is meant to be charming — a kind of playful wish-fulfilment riff in which the protagonist is granted an extraordinary gift only to learn some life lessons that the audience can vicariously share. An updated Midas touch narrative, like 2003’s Bruce Almighty or Adam Sandler’s Click (2006). But in practice, despite promising the potential ramifications of meddling with one’s own existence, the narrative only embraces the conventions of the sci-fi genre in order to craft the quintessential narcissistic male fantasy.
Because let’s be clear: the principle character of this film is a straight up horrible human being.
Upon learning that he has the power to leap across time and fiddle with causality, Tim immediately begins using this power to try and trick women into falling in love with him (the woman he pursues, played by Margot Robbie, thankfully rejects his advances). While one might expect this to be a serious character flaw out of which he will eventually grow, he instead simply moves straight onto trying the exact same routine to seduce his future wife (played by Rachel McAdams, who, after also starring in the Time Traveller’s Wife (2009), must be truly sick of being jerked around by this temporal displacement crap by now). It’s not that his actions were wrong, the film suggests, he just hadn’t met the right girl to oppressively program into being his ‘the one’.
In any other film, a man sneaking into a woman’s social circle for the express purpose of gathering information he can use to lure her in, a man lurking (for several weeks!) in places he knows she’s going to be, who stages elaborate scenarios in order to trick her into liking him, would be a serial killer. This film gives that man the power to leap through time and considers it charming.
As the movie proceeds, this 4th-dimensional creeper’s actions become only more unsettling. Even putting aside his obvious outrages (breaking up his girlfriend’s relationship with another man by travelling back in time and making sure she never meets him; using conversations he has with her in the future to ‘game’ her into liking him in the past, etc.) there’s the moment of their first sexual encounter.
In a bit of ‘hilarious’ business, it’s implied that their lovemaking was a bit of a disappointment (or at least, that’s how Tim perceives it, and this film is nothing if not solely concerned with his feelings), so he goes back in time and does the experience over again. The second time the sex is apparently great — and she, of course, has no memory (or experience) of his first, less stellar performance — but Tim still thinks he can do better, so he travels back for a third go. When the film catches up with him, he and his lover have tumbled out of bed in a clichéd post-coital sprawl, spent, but finally satisfied.
Well, he is. Because she turns to him and admits she’s disappointed they only got to have sex once…
Ba dum tss!
It’s all very hilarious — except not. Because if you think for more than a second about the foppish, boys-will-be-boys time travel ‘gag’ being played out here, this time travel ‘comedy’ pretty swiftly becomes Back to the Rohypnol. What he has done to the woman he professes to care about is had sex with her under false pretences, and robbed her of the pleasure he has helped himself to, at her expense, at least twice.
About Time… for That Restraining Order
Similar such instances of ‘harmless’ comic selfishness continue to compound. Moment after moment of it being ‘funny’ that he tricks his friends and loved ones for his personal gratification, flitting about rewriting life to his advantage, avoiding conflicts, exploiting the trust of everyone he meets, engineering endless moments of delight for himself. Over time he constructs a perfect little existence for himself: a wildly successful career, adored by the woman he keeps oblivious, all built upon and fuelled by thousands upon thousands of exploitative lies.
At this point in my viewing, although the tone of the film remained inexplicably twee and jolly, I found myself watching in a state of perplexed horror. Unable to look away, I kept waiting for some thoroughly deserved comeuppance to fall upon the main character for this onslaught of grotesquely manipulative behaviour. Surely this kind of naked, sociopathic self-interest could not go unpunished? Some retribution must be at hand? But no. Not only does the film continue presenting this quantum con artist as a loveable, fluffy-haired scamp, but we are meant to applaud his success.
If the reason for my revulsion is not already clear, perhaps a point of comparison is in order. In 1993’s Groundhog Day, another tale of a man displaced from time, the entire premise of this movie is explored — and resoundingly refuted — in a single 15-minute sequence. At the midpoint of the film, Bill Murray’s character Phil tries to seduce Andie MacDowell’s Rita, only to discoverer that you cannot ‘program’ someone to love you. A central theme of Groundhog Day was the realisation that gaming the system to your own benefit only ends in dissatisfaction and emptiness. Thus, when Murray indulges this manipulation of others he is rightly painted as a lecherous prick. But he eventually learns to grow beyond his indulgent narcissism. In contrast, About Time lingers in a state of arrested development, unironically depicting the mistreatment of others for one’s own benefit as delightful romantic comedy fare.
Even when Tim attempts to help his sister, whose life is spiralling into alcoholism and depression, this superficially altruistic action is ultimately all dependent upon his own interests. In his efforts to help her course-correct, Tim takes his sister back in time so that she can never hook up with her mean boyfriend. (Yes, it is implied that her life is a mess because she’s not dating the right man; drink in that lovely erosion of a female character’s agency.) They then return to the present, Tim unbothered by having effectively robbed her of all of the interim years that are now overwritten – something with which she, too, is oddly fine — and her still burdened by the memory of what was — but again, apparently fine with it now.
But when Tim returns home he finds that his meddling has led to a change in his own life. By a quirk of fate, ‘fixing’ his sister’s life somehow led to a different sperm hitting a different egg, and his daughter is now a son. He freaks out and immediately turns history back to the way it was before, obliterating his sister’s happier life, and wiping his new son from existence. (His panic at having a son and his willingness to immediately wipe that child from existence might suggest a Freudian reading of this film.) Tim reveals that he’s fine with rewriting swaths of his sister’s life with abandon, but the minute it inconveniences him: UNDO! DELETE! UNDO!
He wipes away the several healthy years that his sister has enjoyed, and ‘learns’ that it’s probably better — for her, you understand — if he helps her fix her problems in the present. His every minor annoyance he can fiddle with at will. Her life-rending torment? Well, she can probably walk that off.
It’s worth noting that this tangential escapade reveals that Tim’s powers extend to other people travelling through time with him — a revelation that makes Tim’s decision to never share this ability with his wife or mother even more astonishingly selfish. Indeed, this patronising decision to exclude the women in the film, not only from the experience of time travel but also the knowledge that it’s even happening at all, is mystifyingly baked into every part of the narrative.
From his deceptive courtship to his paternalistic meddling in his sister’s affairs, to the film’s emotional climax — he and his father sharing a moment together playing on the beach after his father has already died — women are consistently preyed upon, lied to, or actively excluded. Even his mother is not offered one last opportunity to leap through time and say goodbye to her dead husband — despite stating categorically that life without him now holds little interest for her. Sure, Tim could easily do it, but that whole beach trip was more of a boys thing, you know?
But perhaps the most obnoxious part of the whole production is the film’s narration, which becomes emblematic of the oppressive, patriarchal wish-fulfilment shaping the plot. About Time is punctuated with Tim’s autobiography as he explains how his power was revealed to him, describes the ways in which he used it to shape his life, and finally offers the glib moral that the movie attempts to render in its climax: that even with the ability to travel through time, it’s in savouring the experience of the everyday that we find the most fulfilment.
Now, there are a lot of troubling connotations to unpack from this lesson, but perhaps the first thing to ask is: Who is he telling this story to? Who are we, in the audience, meant to be?
Because throughout the narrative a great deal is made of how the secret of time travel must be protected — that’s supposedly why the women folk have to be kept in the dark. The men of this family can travel through time, but the women must never be told about it. That’s why Tim’s mother — despite living the majority of her life with her husband — is never made aware of the power he has been employing every day of their lives. It’s why Tim’s wife — similarly, despite being shown throughout the film getting manipulated by her husband’s jaunts through their timeline — is never told. And again, even his sister, who grew up in the same household as two time travellers, the sister who admits that she grew up believing herself to be the failure of the family, presumably because she didn’t have the power to just take a mulligan on every life mistake, is only briefly told of her brother’s powers, then has the knowledge erased when it suits Tim’s purposes to continue keeping her in the dark.
Mother, sister, and wife are all impacted every moment of every day by the men in their lives who are covering up their own mistakes; using knowledge stolen from the future; selfishly revelling in moments these women cannot share, and repeatedly running roughshod over their free will. But these women are never told, never allowed the right to feel justifiably betrayed. Yet, we in the audience get to hear it. In fact, in his narration, Tim can’t shut up about it, which has the unsettling effect of making the audience complicit in this grand deception.
Because, as the incident with his sister proved, it’s not as if any temporal paradoxes or rifts in space-time are going to open up if he blabs; it’s just that everything is a whole lot simpler if the women folk don’t find out. For their own good, you understand. We wouldn’t want to worry their pretty little heads.
Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) and Dad (Bill Nighy) practice their patriarchal powers together.
Besides, if the wife hears about it, she might have a whole lot of annoying questions about how he brainwashed her out of dating another man, avoided most every domestic disagreement by rewriting her personal history, presented a false version of himself every waking minute of every day, repeatedly had sex with her without her knowledge, and is ultimately only with her because the first woman he tried to hook up with didn’t fall for his ghoulish tricks.
You know, chick stuff.
About Time professes to be about celebrating the momentary experience of life, but it tries to make this case by celebrating the most narcissistic, selfish behaviour ever rendered in film. One might want to swoon at Tim’s last minute vow to no longer exploit time, that he no longer needs to live outside of the present moment, but at this point he has already gotten everything he ever wanted in life by taking advantage of everyone and everything around him. His career, love-life, and family, all have been won by virtue of screwing with the temporal order. Arguing that he has learned a lesson is like saying that a career criminal has discovered he doesn’t want to rob people anymore because he now has more money than he could ever spend.
It’s the Donald Trump of romantic comedies. It tells you how great and sweet and clever it is, but scratch the surface and everything is the complete opposite of what it claims. Love is really manipulation and fraud; new experience is staged play-acting; happiness is narcissistic indulgence.
Curtis’s time travel fantasy presents itself as a playful comedy that speaks about the universal experiences of life that bind us all — like kitten videos and bickering about Love Actually. It wants to remind us that we are all bound by the beautiful, transitory nature of existence, that immutable, insistent force of time, fraught with peril and delight. But something appears to have gone wrong in its expression, because in the film’s attempts to render this message, it instead celebrates self-centeredness and fraud, eroding its own sentiment.
Perhaps there’s a message in it, after all. About Time trips over its own premise, but unlike in Tim’s story, there are no do-overs to get it right the second time. Ironically, the film proves itself to be more human than its protagonist. After all, what makes we human beings so extraordinary is that we have to live with our mistakes. We, like About Time, are flawed. But sometimes, as in the case of Love Actually, it can be those flaws that make us so beloved.