From time to time, I like to fantasize about how my life would be different if I could relive certain moments knowing what I know now. Would my life be any better? We are, for good or ill, the sum of our experiences. We may come out stronger because of failure, but it would be nice if we could repair those failures to steer our lives towards a better future. About Time takes a little bit of time travel to provide a wonderful fantasy about getting the chance to make things right. However, the real magic is how writer-director Richard Curtis takes this concept and uses it not only to create a charming love story, but a powerful life story that will have you tearing up not at the fantasy of reliving your past, but the reality of cherishing the present.
On his 21st birthday, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is told by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family have the ability to travel back in time. The rules are simple: to travel back, they need to go to a dark place like a cupboard, clench their fists, and think about when and where to go. Furthermore, they can only go back to places they’ve been before, and for some reason there’s never been a catastrophic Butterfly Effect. Tim’s dad says he used the ability to read every book more than once, and Tim decides to use it to get a girlfriend. When he tries to pick up Charlotte (Margot Robbie), the friend of his free-spirited sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), he discovers his ability can’t make someone fall in love with him. But when the potential is there, he uses his power to win the heart of the kind and pretty Mary (Rachel McAdams). From there, his time travel smoothes out the rough edges of the relationship, but then he gets tested when larger crises enter his life.
About Time wears the guise of a simple rom-com with a nice twist. Similar to Curtis’ lovely Notting Hill, About Time takes a nervous male protagonist (with Gleeson and his gangly appearance being more convincing than the foppish but handsome Hugh Grant), and brings him into an extraordinary circumstance. About Time is even better because, despite the supernatural aspect, it’s far more relatable than dating a celebrity. We’ve all wondered about “What if?” What if we hadn’t made a clumsy introduction? What if we had kissed the cute person we were standing next to at the New Year’s Eve party? What if we had been at the right place at the right time to meet the right person? It turns out courage and luck are just as powerful as time travel.
Curtis always goes the extra mile to make his movie clever and thoughtful. Tim’s life would almost be too perfect due to his ability, but the director and his actors always manage to find the comedy to bring the story back to something relatable. Considering his awesome power, Tim should feel invincible. He has the ultimate defense against rejection and failure. But Gleeson’s great performance allows us to believe Tim would still feel trepidation, fear, and awkwardness. Gleeson also has good chemistry with Adams, who may be a bit of a dream girl whose beauty is only “tempered” by her hairstyle (a brunette with bangs! Oh no!), but she’s still adorable, and so is their relationship. Not only do Tim and Mary have a unique “meet cute”, but they also meet cute, meet cute, and meet cute again. It’s a nice play on a tired trope, and the witty jokes and big heart help the movie navigate clichés and dodge the emotional roughness of real relationships (for example, Tim and Mary never fight).
The movie then takes an unexpected turn by leaving the comforts of the romantic comedy behind in terms of the genre tropes, and heading in a new direction that’s both heartbreaking but also grows the time travel mechanic beyond “Better Living through Superpowers”. The turn creates a thematic resonance that admittedly does come to a corny conclusion, but the sappiness is bearable thanks to the story and the performances. Without going into details, I will simply say that Bill Nighy is absolutely crucial to the movie and does wonders with his limited amount of screen time. His charm is boundless and, like Mary, the character is an ideal, but Nighy makes Tim’s dad paradoxically both perfect and realistic. He’s lived enough to know what’s best, and yet his comforting demeanor extends past his unique ability.
Presumably, the actions of men who can time travel would remove meaning from their lives since they are in a sense eternal and almost godlike. But About Time graciously shows that instead of cynicism and malaise coming from their awesome power, they develop wisdom and a greater appreciation through new perspectives. And it’s not really about Tim and his father’s power to time travel. It’s about soaking in life and trying to get as much joy as possible from it. We can’t travel through time, but About Time shows there’s nothing stopping us from experiencing that joy.