21 August 2013

"I Can't Kill Hitler or Shag Helen of Troy, Unfortunately"

Remember The Butterfly Effect? Ashton Kutcher can travel back in time to revisit events from his own life and tries to make everything better, but, thanks to the law of unintended consequences, reverberating ripples from the titular butterfly effect only spell doom, angst and regret. Well, Richard Curtis has a new film coming out soon, which offers, as you might expect, a very different take on the same concept.

In About Time, we meet Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), our young, ginger hero. He had a happy childhood with his oddball family: his quirky, boho sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), his mum (Lindsay Duncan) whose style icon is the queen, and his dad (Bill Nighy), who retired from his teaching job at the age of 50 for a life of basement ping-pong and picnics on the beach at their sprawling Cornwall manse. Oh, and Uncle Desmond (Richard Cordery), who is a few sandwiches short of the aforementioned picnic.

When Tim turns 21, his father takes him aside and shares a big secret: the men in their family are able to time-travel. They can only travel backwards and only to events from their own lives ("I can't kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy, unfortunately," Dad says), but it's a pretty useful skill to have. After much disbelief, Tim heads for a quiet closet, closes his eyes and flashes back to the New Year's Eve party they held the night before where he failed wildly with a girl. It doesn't go much better the second time around, but the principle has been proven. Sensibly, the film doesn't go into too much detail on the mechanics, rules and potential paradoxes. "We don't seem to have messed up civilisation yet," says Dad.

After striking out with Kit Kat's poshy totty friend Charlotte (Margot Robbie) that summer, Tim heads for the big city, moving in with his father's belligerent playwright friend Harry (a wonderfully grumpy Tom Hollander), working as a barrister and, eventually, meeting a lovely American girl called Mary (Rachel McAdams) at Dans Le Noir. With a little help from his time-travelling skills, life goes well for Tim and, after almost making a big mistake after a chance encounter with Charlotte at the theatre, he does the right thing and returns home to Mary. But Kit Kat doesn't find London life so easy, struggling with alcohol and a toxic relationship. Tim thinks he can use time travel to fix things, but then discovers one of the things his father forgot to tell him: if you travel back to a time before you've had a child, the tiny butterfly-effect ripples would result in a different sperm fertilising the egg and, as a result, you end up with an entirely different child. (For some, this may be desirable, but this is a Richard Curtis film.)

About Time is entirely predictable, trotting out the same cookie-cutter, straight-from-central-casting upper-middle-class characters who always inhabit Curtis's films. It's a very Londony film, but by London, I mean Maida Vale, Fulham, Soho and the Inns of Court, although to be fair to Curtis, Tim does dare to cross the Thames to visit the National Theatre and stroll along the South Bank one evening. None of this really matters, though, because it's all so damn charming — even to a cynic like me. Nighy is great and steals most of the scenes he is in, but I also thought Hollander was brilliant and darkly funny. Meanwhile, Gleeson and McAdams, as our young lovers had good chemistry and were sweet and believable together. I last saw McAdams in her full tantrum-throwing glory in Midnight in Paris, so it was nice to see her back in girl-next-door mode. Incidentally, the epic montage scene that opens Woody Allen's Parisian movie is nicely mirrored by the London montage towards the end of About Time. I don't think it was intentional, but I enjoyed it more.

If you're looking for an edge-of-your-seat thriller with plot twists a-plenty, About Time isn't the film for you. But if you want a fun romp through a very particular perception of London populated with familiar characters, all of whom are much more witty than their real-life equivalents could ever hope for, give it a try. And don't believe the "sci-fi" genre tag. It's a Richard Curtis film, so it's a romantic comedy, of course.

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