Richard Curtis has become a byword for everything in British cinema that’s safe, stuttery, gently amusing, occasionally teary and ten steps to the left of real. The familiarity of his new film, the cosy and evangelical ‘About Time’, will please fans as much as it irritates detractors. And it will be a relief to anyone who suffered the excruciating gags-to-laughs ratio of his super-indulgent ‘The Boat that Rocked’.
‘About Time’ is a light-touch comedy, not free of sentimentality, about a young man, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), from a wealthy, boho background in Cornwall, who bumbles his way through life and love but who has a power inherited from his dad (Bill Nighy): he can hold his eyes shut and go back in time.
This touch of magic is handy when Tim, newly moved to London, says the wrong thing to a girl or wants to give sex a second go. But he can’t change the major stuff (births, death) and, in Curtis’s hands, time travel is really a way of learning how to live a better life. (Strangely, though, we’re not meant to think there’s anything creepy about being a puppetmaster with people’s lives.) The sort-of superpower helps him get together with Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American with an odd obsession with Kate Moss, and the film takes us a few years into their relationship – with some bumps to negotiate, naturally.
Curtis know-it-alls will have fun ticking off the characters and flourishes that re-emerge from earlier films. Gleeson, obviously, is the Curtis alter ego played by Hugh Grant in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, ‘Notting Hill’ and ‘Love, Actually’. There’s the crazy housemate (Tom Hollander, funny as a surly playwright); there’s the kooky, damaged woman close to the main character (Lydia Wilson playing Tim’s troubled sister, Kit Kat). There’s even a new version of the scene in Portobello Road in ‘Notting Hill’ where the seasons quickly pass by: here, it’s Tim and Mary walking past by the same tube buskers time and time again in different clothes.
There’s something of the trendy village vicar about Curtis’s view of British life: essentially conservative but not averse to the odd strum of a guitar. Like a well-worn sermon newly peppered with groovier words, ‘About Time’ is an update of Curtis’s earlier films for a generation of filmgoers now used to playful takes on genres and weeping at John Lewis ads set in tastefully tatty, upscale redbrick suburban homes. It’s oddly comforting. Yet there’s also a messiness to the storytelling that’s offputting and the humour is patchy. Curtis also has a knack of colliding the poignant with the trite. One minute characters are spouting TS Eliot. The next someone is quoting Baz Luhrmann’s pop song about sunscreen as if its wisdom is carved in stone.
The relationship between Tim and his dad is tender, and the film deals warmly with ideas of moving on and letting go. But still, the only genuinely, properly moving scene comes unintentionally and courtesy of a cameo by the late, great Richard Griffiths. He’s playing an actor filling out a dressing-room chair, his eyes squinting with tiredness as if he’s just been freed from a cave after years captive. Such a moment only shows up the shallowness of much of the sentiment at play.