Full disclosure: Besides being a longtime Richard Curtis fan, I did notes on a draft of About Time while it was in development, so I can’t claim objectivity. But it’s worth noting that on the page, the script made this seasoned, often cynical reader laugh and cry.
The finished film had the same effect, not that it’s comfortable to admit it. In our current cultural moment of snark and twerk, enjoying Curtis has become a guilty pleasure. Even at his best (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, The Girl in the Café, and roughly half of Love Actually), Curtis can veer into sentimentality, and his world has the rarefied glossy sheen of London-gone-Hollywood. The darker, uglier edges of human passion rarely if ever enter into his pictures, and the fairytale-like upscale milieu in this one may irk a populist’s soul.
Nonetheless, Curtis is a modern master of a genre that can often make you hate yourself in the morning for having enjoyed it. Singularly adept at writing the sort of sophisticated, witty dialogue that can make a rom-com take flight, he’s sharp at physical comedy, too. And while making old-fashioned big screen romance credible (no mean feat) he’s buttressed it with an admirable gallery of memorable supporting characters. If you’ve seen Four Weddings, I’ll wager you’d recognize the friends of its hapless hero on sight as easily as you’d tag Hugh Grant.
I’ve written here and elsewhere of Curtis’s way with ensembles: whether it’s the buddy-friends of Weddings, Hill, Actually or Bridget Jones’s Diary (co-written with Andrew Davies and Helen Fielding), he always provides his leads with foils who are as funny as they are distinctive (Spike, anyone?), and they tend to travel in convivial packs.
In this respect, About Time is both different and the same: this time the supporting cast is mostly family. And “mostly family” is the true Get Out Your Handkerchiefs factor in what comes on as both a straight-up romantic comedy and a domestic science fiction pic. About that: Yes, the men in the family of protagonist Tim (Domhnall Gleason) can travel back in time, but only within their own lifetimes, so there’s none of that killing Hitler stuff, as Tim’s dad (Bill Nighy) is quick to point out.
What truly pulls at the heartstrings in this story, reportedly Curtis’s last outing as a director, is the relationship between father and son, and son and sister, along with an endearing mom and the (literally) odd uncle. While the movie is carp-worthy and will be too sweet and neat for some folks’ taste, I lapped it up, though it made me realize that romantic passion is not, in fact, Curtis’s forte.
What this writer has always been about, I believe, is the evocation of affection – the kind of love that largely remains unspoken between friends and is rarely articulated well among relatives. In fact, after their initial tryst (a sexual wish fulfillment fantasy that’s amusingly well-played), the love between Tim and Mary (a glowing Rachel McAdams) most vividly crops up in the sort of small moments that people in many long-term relationships will recognize: the times – in passing, say, on the run, even en route to sleep – when you appreciate your lover as a true friend and cherished companion.
Affection, often underrated next to unbridled emotional intensity, is what fills in the canvas of a Curtis movie. In a sense, Four Weddings is a series of comedic portrayals of how much fun it can be to “take the piss out of” a pal, as is his Pirate Radio; Actually is replete with moments between non-lovers where the tenderness, warmth, and caring between people, however humorously expressed, is what’s being put on fond display. Dad’s advice to son Tim in Time – “Marry someone who’s kind” – echoes this ethos.
The affection between Dad and Tim in About Time is the linchpin of the movie, and in Bill Nighy, who did a far more flamboyant turn with such material as the aging rocker in Actually, director Curtis has found his ultimate avatar. Nighy, a study in the art of effortlessness, makes fond feelings – in that quintessentially British, let’s-not-make-a-fuss-about it manner – a quiet joy to behold. About Time, with its simple but inarguable theme of being here now as the key to living a fulfilling life, is a celebration of affection worth savoring.