Our Favourite Films: About Time

about time indexIs there a more perfect title?

I first came across the film while browsing at the shops. Because it was a new release (older ones usually have their spine sticking out rather than the cover), the DVD image the marketers selected caught my eye. It’s probably no secret that sometimes an image from a film (‘Enough Said’ managed to do it with Eva and Albert sitting next to each other during a key ‘story moment’) is enough for me to make a mental note to seek the title in the future. I did not expect that was Domhnall Gleeson, probably because he isn’t the person who would come to mind for a film like this. And it was likely that I would have struggled to place him as Moon in 2010’s ‘True Grit’ based on that image alone. Yes, he was great in 2017’s ‘American Made’ (another unexpected comedy). There’s also the fact that I thought it was some other actor I have yet to hear about.

The Setup: Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is blessed. He gets to live the kind of idyllic life that many dream of: a consistent childhood. He has both parents (Bill Nighy and Lindsay Duncan) present even as he ages out of adolescence, a sibling who’s caring, and a house that fills one’s basic needs and more (a swim is just a stroll away, a room for each human, neighbours are at least 5 minutes away – at least that’s what I can assume, as I don’t think I had noticed other houses nearby). What’s important for us to know about our protagonist is that his life is not boring. He’s not wanting to claw his eyes out because he’s not damaged (a joke that some writers throw around because they have less material to draw from).

The Inciting Incident: Tim learns that he can travel back in time. The fact that this happens very early in the film (7:40) is a testament on how well structured and executed the film is. Lots of writers spend precious pages setting up the story without introducing essential plot points. Even if the writer turns out to be the one directing, it still helps when even before being greenlit, the story is in its best form. I can’t confirm that this is the case for ‘About Time’ as I have not yet been able to read any of the versions of the script. But in the final version (the film on disc or streaming) that we can enjoy, those minutes when Tim has the chat with his dad thinking that it’s some sort of a prank seems to be the best version there is. When he goes and attempts to travel back to the most recent New Year’s Eve, the shock when he sees that his clothes have changed after he steps out of the cupboard feels quite organic. Though he does walk around in a daze reliving that event, he does do one major thing different: offer up a smooch to another attendee (though we do not get much information about her – just that she appreciates the gesture) once the clock strikes twelve.

The Stakes: Tim’s long term happiness. For some it’s their work, but for our protagonist, family is a big thing to him. He doesn’t say so, but his journey reflects him working towards that. Since Tim lived in a loving home, he is blessed to have the kind of environment to easily replicate that when he is ready. His fights with Mary (Rachel McAdams) aren’t tinged with competition (as others see arguments in relationships: it’s about winning), and more about understanding where she is coming from so he could find a way to be of service (like when meeting her parents for the first time). Similar to why ‘Friday Night Lights’ was focused on: making a relationship work between Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) Tami Taylor (Connie Britton).

What is unique about the film is that it could probably have been pitched a number of ways. I understand that based on Rachel McAdams’ presence alone warrants a leaning towards Romantic Comedy versus say a Dramedy. I also thought that it was interesting that the Story Grid people thought that it was more of combining what consumers would lean more towards (like say Tim and Mary laughing in the rain) than the actual essence of the story (Tim and his dad walking along the beach – which was one of the featured images Netflix used). I wonder if the first draft consisted of zero time travel, and it was added later to build more layers to the story.

Taking the time to consider the ‘Time Travel’ aspect of the film made me wonder how in some instances, it could be considered as Science Fiction (like ‘Source Code’ which also has an intriguing poster) and in some (Ry Russo-Young’s ‘Before I Fall’) more of a Fantasy. I’m going with: if it’s explained, it’s usually the former. In Tim’s case, it is explained by his dad, but we don’t get really much on why it happened (why them?). If you’re stuck on what to do next for your story (whether you’re in the ‘treatment phase’ or just making revisions to your screenplay), throw in time-travel as a plot device. Maybe your characters might thrive in that environment.

Though its not technically not a rom-com (the climax doesn’t involve Mary), Tim and Mary’s meet-cute is already an echo of productions (‘Love Is Blind’ and ‘Married at First Sight’) that champion the importance of evaluating a person’s personality first, before holding up comparisons on whether it is a win or a loss depending on how they fit according to current media’s definition of attractiveness. It’s a nice comparison to Charlotte (Margot Robbie) whom he fell in love with based on sight. And like ‘Just Like Heaven‘ (though Mary is not a spirit), Tim is asked by the universe (though I know its technically Richard – because he wrote it), just one more time about his choice when he crosses paths with Charlotte once again.

The comedy does lend itself more in ‘the lighter side of dark’, evidenced by the two conversations Mary and Tim have (the first is learning about each other’s job and the next when she asks about his day). Because it’s such an intricate film, the humour pushes the story forward as well as communicate (or further confirm) something about a particular character. I feel that this is the culmination of what Richard Curtis has learned after years of writing and producing. As I glance through his filmography, I am reminded that I’ll have to make time to watch the live action version of ‘The Little Mermaid’ as he is slated to do the screenplay. That and add Nora Lum (aka ‘Awkwafina’) also joining the cast is another reason (she’s hilarious in ‘Jumanji: The Next Level’) I’m quite open to this particular Disney live action remake (though it’s a bit of a head scratcher – because since Scuttle is a bird, the reliable option would be doing CG).

Comedic Moments:

  • Jay’s tennis skills
  • The delights of dining in Dans Le Noir
  • Some trousers are too progressive
  • Rory is Tim’s friend…who’s a boy
  • The ‘stuffed bear’ gift rule

There’s a section in Season 1 of ‘The Newsroom’ when Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is given the reason why MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) cheated: it was a way for her to reverse being rejected. This made me wonder if that’s sort of what happened to Tim when Charlotte resurfaces in his life. If Will had descended from Tim’s family line, would he use time-travel to stop Mac from cheating? I thought it was odd that there’s a view that Tim’s use of time-travel was to get Charlotte to fall in love with him. My view was that Tim was using it to just give himself another chance (which this particular ability gives him). If that were his goal, we’ll have a montage (that would likely fall into ‘creepy’) of Tim trying hundreds of thousands of ways to win Charlotte’s affections. I thought that he played it well, he asked her if the option was possible and then after receiving advice, follows through. I’m not sure if the result is a reflection of Charlotte being an indecisive person in general (that another version of her might really have a different perspective since she hasn’t lived through those months yet) or she is being careful after previously experiencing worrying behaviour when she rejects someone outright.

Rarely does a perfect film come our way, and even if it really hadn’t gotten enough buzz in the awards circuit, it doesn’t lessen its pedigree (it could be said that Richard Curtis wrote ‘Yesterday’ two years ago as a sibling to this – because of the whole: How would you show yourself to be a responsible human being if you were given a particular advantage over something?). By the end of the film, even I’m not capable of travelling through time, I don’t feel any jealousy that Tim could. I think the best films enable us to look at our own lives, inspire us to change something (no matter how little), rather than wish that we were transported as one of the characters. In a way, we time travel by learning from our mistakes. Did you wish you offered your seat to someone on the train? Was it better to just let a driver tare through slow moving traffic rather than just lean on your horn to communicate your displeasure?

Unfortunately, calling the film perfect even at 9/10 isn’t right. Because it does have sections where I wished it had been rewritten. One moment in particular was when Joanna (Vanessa Kirby) made a joke about assault. I’m not sure if it has to do with Jay being too forward, and since we are not shown what was happening (as the focus was the conversation between Tim and Mary) it is difficult to gauge Joanna’s sense of humour (or whether she was trying to keep things light but was really quite worried).

What I did appreciate the most was Tim’s kindness. It was readily illustrated when he meets Harry Chapman (Tom Hollander), a playwright who was at a low point of his creativity. No matter how unkind Harry becomes, Tim is always does the right thing. Whether it is to console his landlord, help fix things (some which require time travel), or forgive him for being unkind (as when they first meet). This makes me wonder where it came from. Tim’s not acting like he’s reluctant, but instead it seems like it’s hard-wired within him. My theory is that he picked it up from how the household treated his sister, Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), who is sort of the black sheep of the family (but really, it’s just she has a different kind of energy than everyone in the family).

I thought the film had managed to start ageing when I rewatched a couple of scenes to put together this piece. What changed was reading Jordan Freeman’s essay about ‘worry’. She notes a particular scene when Tim tries out a piece of advice from his dad, after finding out that there are certain things that time travel will not cure. Yes, it is pretty handy for redoing conversations, but because you’re navigating every single decision a person has made involved in that moment, anything other than that would result in drastic life changes. Jordan points out specific beats during the scene that I hadn’t even noticed (like the loud music from a fellow commuter’s earbuds) and thought I remembered differently (Tim being impatient about the queue at the sandwich shop – I rewatched it and there was no queue. Tim just didn’t notice how warm the staff serving him was being.).

Remember how I mentioned that Domhnall Gleeson wasn’t the person who comes to mind for something like this? Well, I initially thought that ‘this’ would be a Romantic Comedy at the centre. Instead it is the supporting arc that makes the film so much richer. With that in mind, Domhnall being cast would be a no-brainer. Particularly in that scene that is a version of ‘getting your love interest comment on your outfit’ and the one right after when tragedy befalls important pieces of paper. It is amusing to think that there could be other ways to deliver what Richard wants to say and those two genres are best suited to not only get the attention of a viewer like me, but also to deliver the structural thesis of the story: How to best live your life.

Leigh Lim.
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