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.

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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution