The sexual misdemeanour that casts a long shadow over Richard Curtis's About Time
The time travel element in About Time, Richard Curtis's new comedy, has produced a disastrous scene that should be studied by future generations as the wrong way to deploy a theoretically rich comic device.
I come to you today not to review Richard Curtis’s new film About Time but rather to scrutinise one of its most revealingly misjudged scenes. Not that I am wholeheartedly negative about this curious movie. Despite loathing the previous two pictures from this writer-director (The Boat That Rocked and Love, Actually), I can see that About Time is a progression of sorts for Curtis.
One of his cleverest moves was to choose the pink-and-perky Domhnall Gleeson to play Tim, the budding lawyer who is told on his 21st birthday by his father (Bill Nighy) that all the men in their family have the ability to travel through time — just within their own lifetime, that is, and only backwards to events that have already happened and then forwards again to the present day. A very British sort of time-travel, in other words. Though Gleeson himself is Irish — he’s the son of the great character actor Brendan Gleeson — he is playing an easily flummoxed, self-deprecating Englishman. The sort of part that Hugh Grant should think about taking on once he has tired of portraying grizzled vigilantes and depraved porn barons.
Gleeson is vital to any success the film can claim. Whatever blatant manipulations it engineers (and there are a lot), it helps to have a lead actor of unimpeachable sweetness and integrity. Gleeson can certainly play scuzzy (have a look at his cameo in the Coen brothers’ True Grit or his lead role as a rural misfit-turned-pimp in the little-seen Sensation) but here he is blemishless and sincere, without being boring. He blinks into the dazzling light of every opportunity like a new-born baby.
That brings me to one of the scenes which the film gets so badly wrong. In a weightless comedy, tone is everything, and the slightest wobble can distribute through the rest of the movie shockwaves from which it can be hard to recover. That’s what happens when Tim returns home with Mary (Rachel McAdams) with the intention of sleeping with her for the first time. Unfortunately, all does not go to plan, and the experience is over rather more quickly than might have been hoped. So Tim uses his unique powers to rewrite his sexual history before the ink is even dry: he rewinds time to earlier in the evening so that he can emerge with more prestige from his first time in bed with Mary. He has sex with her again. And again.
When I first saw the scene in isolation, I laughed. In that context, it works, because we don’t know if the balance will be restored — if Mary will find out what happened and be incensed, or if there will be some manner of poetic justice. But she doesn’t. And there isn’t. So within the film, it’s destabilising. It kills the comedy.
Mary is not aware of Tim’s powers at all — it’s a bizarre narrative demarcation that women in Curtis’s movie are neither capable of time-travel nor even cognisant of its existence. So while Tim knows that he has had sex with Mary multiple times, and we have been let in on that secret, she is oblivious. Let’s look at that again outside the context of romantic comedy: a man has sex with a woman multiple times without her consent (or rather, with her consent given only once) and without her knowledge. Has Tim not committed something that would play in any other genre as date-rape? He just happens to use time-travel rather than Rohypnol. (Read Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata, in which the main character’s ability to freeze time enables him to ogle and even grope women, and you will see the same situation played honestly.)
Of course, no one demands that fictional characters in any genre should maintain high moral standards. Some of the greatest of all comedies (Elaine May’s A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid or Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Some Like It Hot) feature people behaving despicably, all without any cost to our enjoyment. If anything, that moral dimension adds weight and risk to every laugh. But where About Time goes wrong is in applying no implied critical voice, no sceptical distance, to Tim’s actions.
To see how badly Curtis messes up, it is helpful to look at another movie which gets the same scenario exactly right. In Groundhog Day, the misanthropic Phil (Bill Murray) also experiences a temporal anomaly, though in his case it is not a super-power but a punishment: he’s trapped in a time-loop and forced to relive the same day over and over for many years, even decades. Phil uses the curse of repetition to gain precisely the same nature of carnal advantage that Tim engineers for himself. We see him in one scene grilling a woman for biographical details about her school days, so that when he sees her the “next” day (though for her, it is the first time she is experiencing that day) he can use the information he has harvested to provide a conversational “in”. By the evening, he has wormed his way into her bed.
In theory, it is the same scenario as About Time, with an identical reliance on the privileged knowledge shared by audience and hero. The key difference is that Phil is a repugnant character at that point in the film, with a long road to self-improvement ahead of him, and Bill Murray is a master in bringing infinite gradations to his sleaziness. Tim, on the other hand, is held up at all times as a delightful and charming boy-next-door type whose worst flaw is that he puts his foot in his mouth once in a while. This leaves his sexual misdemeanour unchecked, his conduct unchallenged.
Add to this Tim’s own control over the narrative (he has the privilege of voiceover, which Phil in Groundhog Day does not) and it becomes clear that the film has denied itself the facility to comment in any way on Tim’s lack of propriety, his effective rape of Mary for our entertainment. Without the amoral pantomime of a Bill Murray-type as a get-out clause (we may like Murray but we’re not supposed to approve of his actions), the audience is invited only to applaud Tim’s actions. In this instance, Domhnall Gleeson’s charm not only cannot save the scene, it actively exacerbates its horrors: we cannot square our general sympathy for him with what he’s done.
Mary is none the wiser. It’s bad enough that Curtis has neglected to write her as a proper human being: her characteristics are to be loving and supportive to Tim and to produce his children, which are not actually characteristics at all. Any choice she makes about their relationship cannot be based on the full set of facts about the sort of person he is. Reader, she marries him.
Curtis wrote a similar scene, hinging on a woman being oblivious to the exact nature of her sexual relationship with a man, in the most unsavoury part of The Boat That Rocked. But that was generally a grubby picture, so perhaps the mistake didn’t cast quite the long shadow that it does over About Time, which is in many other ways gentle and compassionate. That disastrous scene in the new movie, though, is not without value. It should be singled out in film studies classes, and played alongside its counterpart in Groundhog Day, as an example of where a theoretically rich comic device can become so severely devalued in practice.
About Time is released on 4 September.