Clint Eastwood once said “Unforgiven may not be my last western but it will be my best.” He’s never made another film in the genre that defined the first part of his career. Richard Curtis, responsible for the best and most British romantic comedies of recent cinema, openly mused that his latest About Time may be the last film he directs. It may not be the last romantic comedy he directs but it will be his best.
Domhnall Gleeson stars as a man who is told by his father played by Bill Nighy that all the men in their family can travel through time. The marketing for About Time focuses on this gimmick twisting some of the tropes of romantic comedy as Gleeson courts Rachel McAdams. Yet the film’s strength is not about time travel at all, Curtis uses it inconsistently throughout because it is mostly a plot device for him to comment on the meaning of life. What happens AFTER Hugh Grant reads that book on the park bench to Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. The central courting romance of this romantic comedy is over before the halfway mark and the rest of the film gives way gradually to what happens after you fall in love. When you build a life with someone and have children. Children are of course the rebirth of the line that you are linked to through your parents. As the circle of life rolls over one must give way to the other. All of that is on show in About Time…yes people there will be a wedding and a funeral.
McAdams is one of the most wonderful actresses working in Hollywood today but she’s been stuck as the love interest too much ever since The Notebook. Here she is the girl again but she gets to play new notes as a Mum and see the warmth in her as she sits next to her sister in law and agrees she needs to make a change to her life. She is playing more than a love interest.
Domhnall Gleeson is so subtle in his performance here that you may take for granted how easily he slides from awkward teen to concerned brother to doting father. One scene has him shoot a stern and yet frightened gaze at his sister’s boyfriend which is years away (literally) from one where as a teenage boy he squirts sunscreen all over the back of a girl he is trying to woo. It is because of him that we feel this family of his is just like our own. He carries this film and following his presence in Anna Karenina he is one to watch in the years to come.
As previously mentioned the time travel aspects are terribly inconsistent and best not thought about. I know I didn’t give it another thought. It’s a legitimate question to ask how can this man have this ability and not come clean with his significant other. Yet I never once felt this film didn’t present their relationship as equal, grown up and complex despite a cliché scene where yes McAdams tries on twenty dresses before going with the first one. By the way the first would’ve been my pick too.
One montage shows the central couple in the first bloom of love walking through their local train station throughout various days. In one shot she twirls around as he holds her hand.
My God we do twirl around in those first few heady days but because of that the same person holding on to you all that time later at a funeral lets us know of a different passion, a different love but one just as powerful and far more lasting. We are all twirling around train stations at some point and hopefully still holding hands years later. Maybe even occasionally twirling once more because some people just never stop being beautiful. Because some feelings don’t leave us.
One more thing. Bill Nighy playing the father is so beloved that when he shows up in a movie you can’t help but smile. His first line had me grinning even though he wasn’t saying anything funny. I was just so happy to see him. Such an effect from an actor makes him perfect casting for the role of the father. The world loves Nighy and that love will give the film absolute weight later on when he tells Tim what he used the gift of time travel to do with his life. Because if you’re a father and you can travel through time that is exactly what you would do.
This is one of the year’s best.