By David Watson

Scarier than anything that screened at London’s recent FILM4 FrightFest, Shah of Schmaltz Richard Curtis returns with About Time, yet another searing expose of the mating rites of the English bourgeoisie, his customary romantic hero, a gormless Hugh Grant-lite privileged prince of the chattering classes, this time chillingly using his Billy Pilgrim-esque ability to travel in time as an aid in stalking the innocent woman he’s obsessed with. 

When he turns 21, Tim, the bumbling, incongruously ginger (well, none of the rest of the family are…) scion of the kind of family of rich, thoroughly good eggs that exists only in Richard Curtis films, learns from his father (Bill Nighy playing, as ever, Bill Nighy) that the men in the family have the ability to travel in time (screw the girls, they’re girls, eugh, why would they want to travel in time and have adventures?), able to revisit any moment in his own life and change it.  Rather than use this amazing power for the greater good, he never considers going back and trying to save Princess Di, prevent 9/11 or assassinate Call-Me-Dave back when he was only screwing up Carlton rather than the country, you know, something that might actually make the world a better place, no, Tim uses his gifts to serially stalk women in hopes of getting a girlfriend, starting with his sister’s friend who’s staying with the family at their sprawling Cornish hilltop retreat for the Summer.  

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Moving to London to train as a lawyer, Tim meets and is smitten by the beautiful, shy, insecure Mary (a luminous Rachel McAdams who you think would know better after The Time Traveller’s Wife).  But when a jaunt back in time accidentally erases their meeting, he obsessively tracks her down, using his time-travelling powers to ruin her relationship with her new boyfriend and re-engineer their meeting, using his prior knowledge of her to impress and seduce her.  They fall in love and embark on life’s great adventure together, Tim constantly using his powers to do over those special moments; meeting the in-laws, the romantic marriage proposal, the right best man, ensuring their perfection.  Ultimately though, he can only control so much and realises the true meaning of love and life may be to live in the moment.  Awwww! 

Sticking so close to the established Richard Curtis formula it feels almost like a parody.  Nice toffs with a big house?  Check.  Doddery uncle?  Check.  Scatty but lovable (lovable = chewing-tinfoil annoying) sister?  Check.  Wedding?  Check.  Funeral? Check.  Bumbling, tongue-tied posho protagonist?  Check and double check.  All the stock Curtis moments are there too; kisses in the rain, bumbling romantic declarations, helpful serfs, they’re all just slightly undercut.  And is there anything more terrifying than a Richard Curtis romantic lead?  Whether it’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually or the genially rapey The Boat That Rocked, Curtis’ heroes, despite their bumbling bonhomie, floppy hair and bland good looks are a scary collection of sociopaths, the type of chaps who if they were truckers would be killing hookers with a hammer in a lay-by.   

In Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hugh Grant casually uses the women around him (Kristen Scott Thomas’ Fiona and Anna Chancellor’s Duckface), even going so far as to jilt one at the altar, while stalking a bland American who’s already in a relationship.  Love Actually meanwhile is like The Following; wall-to-wall potential serial killers.  Despite being the Prime Minister, Hugh Grant obsesses over secretary Martine McCutcheon, his possessiveness potentially jeopardises the UK’s alliance with the USA and coldly manipulates her by shunting her into another job (harming her career?) before stalking her at Christmas and taking advantage of her at a school Nativity play; a clear case of sexual harassment.  Colin Firth doesn’t allow his lack of a shared language to impede his stalking of his pretty Portuguese housekeeper.  The Sheriff from The Walking Dead creepily videotapes and stalks Keira Knightley despite her being married to his mate.  Widower Liam Neeson encourages his son to cause a security alert at a major airport, AT CHRISTMAS, in pursuit of the object of his affections who’s in danger of escaping to America.  Everyone in The Boat That Rocked plies teenage girls, trapped on a boat in the middle of the North Sea, with drugs and alcohol in an attempt to date-rape them.   

Admittedly, Curtis never depicts his protagonists actually murdering any of these women but, be honest, if they dug up their patios and found human remains, would you be that surprised?  Tim is simply the logical end result, the pinnacle of Curtis’ magnificent obsession, a time-travelling Patrick Bateman, using his almost godlike power to acquire the woman he desires.  The film never really addresses Tim’s sociopathic self-absorption, his Groundhog Day-like obsession to do over each day until it’s perfect; the difference being of course that Groundhog Day’s luckless protagonist was forced by fate and the cosmos to redo each day until it was perfect, evolving in the process into a better person.  Tim on the other hand chooses to relive events in order to stack the odds in his favour.  He doesn’t evolve, he remains forever an emotional teenager. 

When the Butterfly Effect finally flaps its wings and impacts on his life it’s after he does something altruistic for a loved one.  Saving them causes his idyllic life to change for the (only slightly) worse but rather than live with the consequences, he goes back and changes time back to his advantage, irrevocably changing lives and condemning his loved one to a decade of misery without a second thought or a twinge of conscience.  According to Spidey’s uncle: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Not for the boys in Tim’s family, they take no responsibility for there actions.  And is there anything more middle class and Middle English than having the ability to potentially change the world but instead using it purely for your own selfish desires?  To better your own situation at the expense of others (Tim does after all erase Mary’s boyfriend from her life)?  Tim is a true child of Thatcher. 

As you’d expect from Curtis, the direction is blandly lush, the script not as funny as it thinks it is and the performances are all…well, fine.  Domhnall Gleeson is perfectly solid as the Curtis avatar though the main aspect of the film that places it firmly in the realms of Sci-Fi isn’t the time travel but that Ron Weasley’s older brother would end up with Rachel McAdams who’s as beautiful and funny and gawky and sweet as only fantasy women who exist purely at the whim of their man can ever be.  The rest of the cast are perfectly adequate, no one bumps into the furniture who isn’t supposed to, with only the brilliant Tom Hollander as Tim’s bitter alcoholic landlord and friend really shining. 

Other than its lack of laughs, perhaps About Time’s greatest sin is its squandering of so much rich material, such potentially interesting ideas.  Why is the doddery old uncle quite so befuddled?   Unable to recognise anyone, he’s seemingly aware of events?  Is he a casualty of time travel, lost in his memories, unable to tell present reality from the past?  The future?  Is he adrift, lost in his own timeline?  Does Tim continually manipulate time to ensure he only has daughters as sons with similar gifts could be a potential threat?  Is Mary really that lovely or has Tim continually adjusted her, constructed her, to be his perfect woman?  There’s a darkness at the heart of About Time that’s never addressed, never acknowledged, but there lies the seed of a much better film.  It’s a shame then that Curtis chose instead to make Slaughterhouse Five: The Con-Dem Years.

VERDICT: [rating=2]

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