Touted as the final film in British filmmaker Richard Curtis’ sparse directorial career, About Time (2013) is his third and perhaps most considered feature: a sci-fi-inflected romantic comedy that very much slots into – but arguably attempts to depart from – the storytelling techniques Curtis has become known for. Typically schmaltzy, optimistic and sincere, this third outing bypasses the near-total worthlessness of sophomore feature The Boat That Rocked (2009) and returns to the relentlessness of Love Actually (2003), where life’s simplicities were easily ironed out and romance was romanticised all out of proportion.
Doing his best impression of Curtis stalwart Hugh Grant, the excellent Domhnall Gleeson plays Tim, a kind-hearted but unlucky in love would-be lawyer whose simple life on the Cornish coast is ruptured when, on his 21st birthday, he is told by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family have the ability to time travel. After immediately righting copious previous wrongs and embarrassments, Tim leaves his hometown and embarks on a new life in London, working at a law firm and meeting Mary (Rachel McAdams), who happens to be the girl of his dreams.
Learning that with each breach of linearity spells a variety of complications in the present tense, Tim goes about ensuring that his relationship with Mary goes without a hitch, as the pair eventually marry and begin to start a family. However, he begins to realise that taking advantage of the past might have unforeseen consequences, and that the future holds a variety of heartbreaking inevitabilities that are out of his control. Sharing excessive lengths, dexterous and overstuffed soundtracks and an untamed handle on tonal shifts, Curtis’ films – About Time included – are something of a compendium of how ostensibly ill-disciplined a filmmaker he is, presenting an unbridled embrace of the idyllic, complex-free side of human existence.
Though Curtis’ oeuvre seems to be more of a collection of his various interests and cultural tastes, what stands out amongst the ambitious superfluity is a stark interest in the themes of parenthood and, specifically, paternity. This is most explicit in About Time, nestled as they are amongst his most overt embracing of a discernible high-concept plot, the parameters of which are initially clearly defined only to be slowly broken with carefree abandon as the narrative plods on.
Riffing on the types of repetitive jokes already perfected in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993), About Time’s numerous lapses into comedy begin to mask an untapped darkness that lurks silently in the underlying subtext of the central equation; chiefly the role of uninformed women in their male counterpart’s zigzagging lives. Yet, when a filmmaker aspires to denote the beauty in carpe diem, the unbridled opportunity of a rose-tinted, traffic-free London and the genuineness of love – and somewhat succeeds, they can at least be forgiven for their numerous cinematic transgressions.