Told on his twenty-first birthday that the males in his family have the ability to travel back in time, Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) is at first skeptical of his father’s (Bill Nighy) claims, but a trip back to earlier that night via his bedroom cupboard shows that his old man is in fact telling the truth. Deciding to use his inheritance to find a girlfriend, Tim moves to London where he soon crosses paths with a young Kate Moss fan called Mary (Rachel McAdams). After accidentally erasing their first meeting, however, he must try to win her heart once more.
The latest film from Richard Curtis, the writer-director behind such quintessentially British films as Four Weddings And A Funeral and Love Actually, About Time was revealed to be the Surprise Film of the 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival ahead of its planned September release. Reuniting him once again with actor Bill Nighy, the film also stars Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s mother, Margot Robbie as his sister and Tom Hollander as a playwright relative who grudgingly puts him up in London.
Obviously, we’re in pretty familiar territory here with regards to Curtis’ back-catalogue, and as a romantic-comedy About Time works rather well. Domhnall Gleeson — looking about ten years younger than he did in Anna Karenina and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — is incredibly charming in the leading role, winning audiences over early on with an enthusiastic voice-over and managing to hold onto their sympathies throughout. McAdams is as loveable as ever in what is admittedly a lesser role, working with her co-star to establish a relationship that is sweet without ever verging on saccharine.
Unfortunately, as a science fiction movie About Time fails completely, the director’s screenplay failing to make any sense whatsoever. An opening dose of exposition establishes that time-travelers can travel backwards but not forwards in time, and yet the characters are somehow able to return to the present at will; it is suggested that characters cannot travel further back than the birth of their most recent child, and yet Tim does just this during the film’s third act; and the claim that only males can travel through time is challenged when Tim takes his sister back with him.
What’s worse, About Time contains almost no drama whatsoever; every time Tim runs into an obstacle or faces a problem he simply jumps into the nearest cupboard and overcomes it with a quick trip back in time. It’s not as though there is any shortage of dramatic possibilities in the script either, with the early erasure of Tim and Mary’s first meeting hinting at a (better) film spent trying to recapture the original spark, and a particularly horrifying sequence in which Tim returns to the future only to find a different child waiting for him. Unimaginably, neither development has any impact on the characters or story.
Gleeson and McAdams are never going to be anything less than watchable, but their charm and chemistry is wasted on a script that refuses to challenge them — or the audience — in any way at all. Any magic or goodwill the actors manage to cultivate during the movie is immediately undone after the credits have rolled, when the film immediately unravels when subjected to even the slightest scrutiny. It’s about time Richard Curtis made another good movie, but sadly this is not it.