About Time is literally about time: time travel, to be exact. But more to the point it is about love and family and embracing all the moments that are special in life. The time travel aspect, while certainly intriguing, is at service to the storyline, it is not the whole thing. The ability of two characters to go back in time is an interesting wrinkle in some interesting lives, but if none of the people who appear in About Time were able to do this temporal trick, they would still all be worthy of a two hour movie.
It’s kind of nice to see a movie where the gimmick does not overwhelm the plot and characters. That is sadly rare in modern filmmaking.
What is also rare is the kind of warm-hearted love of humanity, in all it’s imperfection, that continues to spring forward from Richard Curtis’ imagination. The guy is responsible for writing two of the best romantic comedies ever – Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill.
About Time is Curtis’ third film as a director, following the lovely-if-just-slightly-saccharine Love Actually and the intriguing-if-imperfect change-of-pace story Pirate Radio. Curtis has been saying that About Time may be his last film as a director because directing is such a huge commitment of time that he would rather spend with his family. He says he will continue to write, and he will also not deny the fact that he may very well change his mind about directing somewhere down the line.
If that were sadly to be the case, About Time would be a good place to bow out, it is arguably his best and most personal-feeling film. In fact, when asked in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly why he would even consider retiring from the director’s chair, Curtis explained: “The answer is in the film.” And watching About Time, you realize that yes, indeed, it is.
The story is relatively simple. Soon after his 21st birthday, ginger-haired British law student Tim (played by up-and-comer Domhnall Gleeson) is told a shocking family secret from his dad (Curtis regular Bill Nighy): The men in their family can travel in time.
Tim thinks this is crazy talk, but tries it and finds that his dad wasn’t pulling his leg, the skill was real. In a refreshingly low-tech approach to time travel, if he goes into a small dark place, clenches his fists and concentrates hard on the moment he wants to revisit, he can go back there.
Dad gives him some basic rules: Not forward, just to the past, and just within their own life experiences. You can’t go back and do anything too radical because of the butterfly effect (“You can’t kill Hitler,” dad says sternly.) Using the skill to become rich usually doesn’t work. You can’t make someone love you who is not interested (though you can potentially nuance the situation to your advantage). Otherwise, time is yours.