Richard Curtis is almost an icon of British romantic comedy, thanks to Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Love Actually (2003). About Time is very much a comedy in the Curtis style, and love is the central ingredient, but ultimately it is not so much about romantic love, as the love between a father and son. It is only about time in that the days, months and years we have are valued for how we express and experience love during them.
When Tim Lake (Domnhall Gleeson) turns 21, his father (Bill Nighy) lets him in on a strange family secret: the men are able to travel in time. By simply stepping into a dark place, clenching their fists, and concentrating, they can return to a chosen moment in their own past. He warns Tim of the dangers of using this power unwisely (time-travelling to get rich, for example, is asking for trouble: Tim's dad has 'never met a genuinely happy rich man'), and urges him to think about what he really wants from life. For him, it has been all about books, creating time to read 'everything a man could wish to -- twice'. Right from the start, Tim knows that there is one overriding goal: 'For me, it was always going to be about love.'
First, Tim sets about correcting a moment of awkwardness with a girl at a New Year's Eve party: he could only bring himself to shake her hand, rather than kiss her, at the stroke of midnight, and he had been acutely embarrassed. By stepping back in time, he could practice his social skills until he was able to kiss with confidence. Over the summer, a friend of Tim's sister, 'Kit Kat' (Lydia Wilson), is staying with the Lakes in their rambling seaside home. Tim is instantly smitten with the beautiful Charlotte (Margot Robbie), and replays a number of moments with her in an attempt to make the path of love run smooth. However hard he tries, though, he never succeeds in seducing her, and he learns 'big lesson number 1: All the time travel in the world can't make someone love you.'
Tim moves to London where he encounters Mary (Rachel McAdams) and falls hopelessly in love with her. He quickly discovers that time travel creates its own problems: going back in time to avert a crisis for his cantankerous landlord, Harry (Tom Hollander), results in him not meeting Mary. Tim is determined not to let her slip through his fingers, but it takes considerable effort to engineer a new way of meeting her. Eventually, he succeeds in inviting her back to his flat -- a remarkably ill-judged scene of Tim replaying their first time of having sex together over and over until his sexual performance is good enough.1
As Tim and Mary settle down, get married and start a family, he constantly uses his time-travelling abilities to make their little world a better place. But he discovers that he can't account for everything, and reflects that, 'The real troubles in life will always be the things that never cross your worried mind.' When Kit Kat is struggling with major issues, Tim wants to fix her, but no amount of time travel will allow him to change who someone is, and every journey into the past has consequences for the life which he values dearly. He realises that he cannot return to a time before the birth of his baby without it resulting in a different child being born. All the days leading up to that point are lost for Tim, just as they are for everybody else.
The relationship between Tim and his father is the emotional centre of About Time. However much Tim loves Mary, his love for his dad forms the fulcrum for his life. So when his father is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he is devastated. He wants to know what bit of history could be rewritten in order to avoid this, so his father has to disabuse him of the belief that time travel can resolve every problem: 'I never said we could fix things. I specifically never said that. Life's a mixed bag, no matter who you are. Look at Jesus: he was the Son of God and look how that turned out.'
This is Tim's defining moment, as he realises that, even for a time traveller, life is transient -- sometimes heartbreakingly so. His father tell him his secret formula for happiness, based on the realisation that our most precious recollections are not often momentous, life-changing events, but rather the ordinary moments of love and joy in ordinary days. Part one of the plan is to, 'just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day like anyone else.' Part two is to 'live every day again, almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time noticing.' It becomes an immensely fulfilling strategy. The soundtrack at this point is Ron Sexsmith's 'Gold In Them Hills':
I know it doesn't seem that way
But maybe it's the perfect day
Even though the bills are piling
Maybe Lady Luck ain't smiling
But if we only open our eyes
We'd see the blessings in disguise
That all the rain clouds are fountains
Though our troubles seem like mountains 2
Tim's final lesson from travelling in time came from ceasing to do so altogether:
I just try to live every day as if I'd deliberately come back to this one day -- to enjoy it as if it was the full, final day of my extraordinary ordinary life. We're all travelling through time together, every day of our lives. All we can do is our best, to relish this remarkable ride.
This is a wonderfully heart-warming attitude to life, and the delightful portrayal of the love between Tim and his father makes us want to live with this same degree of intentionality. One would need to be a very cynical viewer not to be somewhat moved by the prospect of finding beauty, joy and love in the ordinary moments of life, lifting the daily grind to an experience of near-transcendent delight. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes also suggests that we should value what we have while we have it:
Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne! Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless days of life that God has given you under the sun. The wife God gives you is your reward for all your earthly toil. Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:7--10)
Curtis is often criticised for his almost unrelentingly positive spin on life in his comedies: everybody is fundamentally nice, and despite some pain along the way, things turn out well. Peter Bradshaw concludes his review of About Time by saying that, 'Curtis is a director who likes his spoonful of sugar, and isn't shy of breaking out Arvo Pärt on the soundtrack to make sure we recognise the sad bits. . . . You'll need a sweet tooth for this film, but it's heartfelt, with a fragile sort of sincerity.3 When Laurie Taylor interviewed him, he asked about what Curtis once referred to as a critical fallacy' -- 'the prevalent cultural idea that anything that is harsh or violent is inherently true to life, whereas anything that is warm and positive is inherently false.'4 Curtis replied:
I really do believe that there is a tremendous amount of optimism, goodness and love in the world and that it is under-represented. But if you do feel it and experience it then you should write about it. The dark side is always dominant. What is the nastiest thing that has happened to me? What is the worst thing I can imagine happening to me? What were the worst three days of my life? Ah. I shall write about that. It is a sort of sentimental conspiracy about violence.
The question which this value-every-moment approach to life raises, though, is whether or not it is adequate. Is it enough to simply see the beauty all around us, to brighten people's day with a smile, to be consistently kind? These are, without question, things which we would all benefit from making part of our daily lives. Although Curtis is right that there is 'a tremendous amount of optimism, goodness and love in the world', it is also true that we encounter pessimism, self-centredness, and unkindness. There is beauty all around us, but there is ugliness too. The problem is that the ugliness and brokenness of the world is found in every human heart, just as goodness and love is. This is the Bible's view of human beings: we are wonderful because we're made in God's image, yet terrible because we've rejected him and his rule in our lives.5 Tim may have had a unique opportunity to train himself in living positively, but the unrelentingly decent Tim is as much a fiction as the time-travelling Tim. A real Tim would not be able to sustain it constantly because he could not root out from within his heart the basic instinct to prioritise his own interests ahead of those of other people. He could suppress it much of the time, but he would be fighting a constant battle within himself.6
Richard Curtis rejects this biblical understanding of human beings because he completely rejects the idea of God. This does not make him a bad man; he is clearly a very good one, and is rightly acclaimed for his extremely hard work for charity. But he must be as aware as anyone else of how imperfect he is, and of how he falls short of even his own standards. The writer of Ecclesiastes may urge us to enjoy what we have while we may, but it also says that we will not really make sense of life until we recognise our creator:
Don't let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honour him in your youth before you grow old and say, 'Life is not pleasant anymore.' Remember him before the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to your old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken your sky. (Ecclesiastes 12:1--2)
God has only given us one life, one set of ordinary days, in which to choose our path. We can live without him and attempt to overcome the darkness all by ourselves, or we can accept his offer of redemption through the death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ, and experience both forgiveness for our failures and a new inner dynamic for appreciating the world's beauty and showing self-sacrificing love to others.