The sexual misdemeanour that casts a long shadow over Richard Curtis's About Time

The time travel element in <em>About Time</em>, 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.

Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson as Mary and Tim in About Time.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.