Why it Works - About Time
Director Richard Curtis has always had a unique way of telling his stories. Using a combination of narration, radio-friendly needle-drops and a strong sense of character development, Curtis guides the audience through his stories. While films like Notting Hill and Love Actually focus on reality-based plots that search for the marvelous in the mundane, About Time reveals maturity in his story-telling techniques, delivering a film that is both more visually powerful and more singularly focused than his previous work.
So, what makes it work?
It’s about time
Ok. Let’s get this clear. This movie is technically about time travel. But not in the traditional sense. It’s not scientifically explained. It has nothing to do with telephone booths, twisty necklaces or heavily-modified 80's cars powered by weapons-grade plutonium.
In this film, time travel is a hereditary trait passed on through the male line of the main character’s family. The rules are simple:
1. You can go back and forth from any moment in the past up until the present.
2. You can’t go into the future.
3. You can only go someplace you have been or were at during that time.
4. You need to go into a dark room, think about the time and place clearly, clench your fists and then presto you are there.
The great thing about the set up is the main character isn’t overly interesting. He is a normal guy who’s first use of time travel is to go back to the night before and kiss a girl at a New Years party he bashfully avoided previously (this is, after all, a Curtis film first and a time travel story second).
More often than not, time travel stories are sprawling epics that follow one of two patterns. Either they cut through swatches of history, reducing centuries to isolated vignettes (Bill & Ted, the Back to the Future cartoon), or they focus on endlessly looping timelines and the effect meddling has (the Back to the Future movies, Terminator, Looper). About Time avoids these traps by restricting the rules of time travel to the point that characters and their emotions are able to take center stage. Time travel films tend to force their main characters to be as absurd as the conceit of time travel. Here, it's a family affair.
Keeping it focused on the main character and his family makes the time travel element less of a gimmick and more of a character trait. Like the ability to juggle or sing. It’s just something he can do when he needs to. He uses it mostly to give things a second go if he really botches it up the first time or to help people he cares about. He rarely uses it solely for himself after the first couple of times he does it.
In the dark. (A meet-cute done right.)
The first time our protagonist meets his love interest is probably the most clever meet-cute I’ve seen in a long time. While out with a mate, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) happens to meet Mary (Rachel McAdams) at a restaurant in London where they serve the food completely in the dark. What we as an audience get is a great scene almost completely devoid of light. With only a time stamp and faint outlines of the reflections of the glasses as the two characters get to know each other. While every possible variation of love-at-first-sight has been done, it's great to see a variant focused on love-at-no-sight-what-so-ever.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. The plot gets far more complicated before they actually end up together. The main character accidentally erases his first meeting with her by going to help his playwright friend avoid a terrible debut of his new play which was happening at the exact same time. But don’t worry, he gets another awkwardly painful to watch chance to make it happen again. And again. And again.
Disguised as a Romantic Comedy.
On the surface this movie was advertised as another rom-com love story by the guy who made “Love Actually” and "Notting Hill”. The campaign came complete with a picture of a beautiful young couple getting married in the rain with smiles plastered across their faces.
With so many other titles blasted across the poster boasting the pedigree, it almost seems like including the actual title was an afterthought. It was obvious they needed to get people into theater seats. The problem is this movie is way deeper than just a romantic love story. The first third of the movie does indeed focus on the blooming love between the two main characters. But as the film continues it’s theme shifts more toward family as a whole and then to the main character’s father specifically. Which is by and large, the best part of the film.
The film’s ultimate challenge for the main character is to *SPOILERS* overcome the death of his father (Bill Nighy). While this type of drama is nothing new on the page, stage or screen, the twist is at any time he can go back and talk to his father by traveling through time. This is a great dynamic because his father knows he will eventually die and it allows both characters to prepare and share time together freely.
But, there is a catch to the time travel hereditary trait after all. After a child is born and the seed is split, you can no longer change anything lest you alter that child's possible future (his daughter may be born a boy in the alternate timeline). This means when the main character's next child is born after the death of his father, he won’t be able to visit his father again in the past and he will truly be gone forever. It all adds up to a powerful metaphor, speaking on the things that divide and unite generations without actually having to speak on them.
All grown up.
The theme of growing up and dealing with life after death is a large theme throughout the movie. Director Richard Curtis along with cinematographer John Guleserian do a wonderful job of bringing this feeling closer to home. Most of the film is shot hand-held and is simply beautiful. The recurring locations of the country side of England, the main character's London apartment and country home, and the room where he and his dad play ping-pong all feel close and memorable.
Like most time travel movies, revisiting the same location or event within the film pulls the audience in as viewers will naturally seek out similarities and differences from the previous visits. Careful cinematography is used to reveal information in such a way that viewers feel a sense of discovery and closeness. This way, when the story forces the viewer to go back and see things again under different circumstances, the impact feels bigger and more personal.
The time we have.
The best thing about this time travel movie is what it tries to teach about the time we have. As the story unfolds the main character slowly goes from living the same day twice to eventually just living each day once and living like he only has one chance. Back to the Future, a film that painted its characters with a broad brush, was ultimately a story about a father and son and their connection. About Time runs a similar trajectory, only it doesn't bury its pathos under screw-brained hijinks. Instead, it eschews the monkeyshines to spend more time focusing on the little things that time presents in life.
The little things you can change and those you can't, like the passing of a family member.
It’s more about using time to live, learn, heal, and grow. One of the joys of watching a good time travel movie is that it serves as a reminder that we are all time travelers, in our limited way. About Time is the rare time travel film that wants to talk about the actual impact of how time moves and how we move through it, not just how awesome it would be to ride a dinosaur or punch Hitler in the taint.
What doesn’t work.
For all the good points, Richard Curtis films can feel like cheesy made for TV movies featuring music courtesy of Curtis' iPod, specifically the playlist labels "2001 Mega Mix - Extra Awesome JAMZ". One montage in particular feels like a poorly edited music video for a band singing in the subway. In theory this sequence should have worked, but something about it just feels off in a film with other parts so spot on in their perfection.
But like every director, you have to know what you are getting into when you watch their movies. Yet, sometimes they may even surprise you.