It's About Time again: What happened when a film critic discussed ill-considered sex in a Richard Curtis movie

Last week Ryan Gilbey expressed discomfort at a scene in Richard Curtis's new time travel rom-com About Time, and was astonished by the responses he received.

When I blogged last week about a scene in Richard Curtis’s time-travel rom-com About Time which I found morally dubious, it prompted the sort of stimulating online back-and-forth that’s useful in reminding one that internet exchanges aren’t entirely combative and disparaging in nature. (That said, I was accused of “mansplaining” and of writing “a terrible article” that should never have been published. My mother, there, supportive as ever…)

The scene with which I took issue featured Tim, the time-travelling hero played by Domhnall Gleeson, revising repeatedly his first night with Mary (Rachel McAdams) in order to emerge from the encounter with his sexual confidence intact. He has sex with her multiple times, rewinding the evening each time in order to do so, and improving immeasurably on his first rather brief attempt. However, she remains oblivious to the fact that he has effectively used her as a glorified blow-up doll on which to practice his technique. They marry halfway through the picture, but she never discovers what he did to her, and it certainly isn’t an issue to the filmmakers.

On the NS site, Mukkinese felt the point was all a bit right-on: “Good grief, talk about middle-class sensibilities run wild. Get a grip. It would only be rape if she did not consent each time she had intercourse, not each time he did.” This, though, was my problem with the film. Mary is given no such opportunity to consent to those multiple revisions. The privileged knowledge rests entirely with Tim. He gets one—no, several—over on her. Rather than focusing on the man, who has all the power in this situation, I thought we should consider the woman, who has none. It’s comparable to a man having sex repeatedly with a woman suffering from short-term memory loss, only for him to present each time as the first. If she gave her consent on every occasion, it could only be without full possession of the facts.

Still on the NS site, Graham said that Tim’s behaviour “could … be construed as him wanting to do better for her benefit.” Ron responded insightfully: “I don’t think this is entirely the case … This sequence maps onto a more general cultural discourse in which sex is something men ‘do’ to women, female pleasure is something men ‘give’ to women, and female orgasm stands as ‘proof’ of men’s sexual prowess.”

On Twitter, @amuchmoreexotic pointed out that “each version of her does know what’s being done to her” since Tim is “travelling in between realities, but in each one she consents,” though he did concede that this was “arguably under a mistaken assumption.” In other words, while she consents to each individual act of intercourse, she has no access to the bigger picture. The audience does have that access, though, which makes us complicit in Tim’s deception and increases the sleaziness of the scene. @amuchmoreexotic had a question: “so what happens to the version of her he prematurely ejaculates in? When he time travels is that one destroyed?” The answer is yes. Each new version of reality that Tim creates by time-travelling over-writes the previous one. “So he’s killing alternative versions of the woman every time he travels,” @amuchmoreexotic continued. “Murder, not rape, is the problem here.”

I liked the procedural coolness brought to bear on the whole conundrum by @StephenTHughes: “The complainant needs to have had the capacity (in this case the understanding) to make a choice about whether or not to take part in the sexual activity *at the time in question*. Tricky with two timelines! I guess with time travel you ought to need capacity to consent in both timelines. And one could argue that she didn’t have capacity to consent in his timeline because of the deception as to nature of the act. Perhaps not enough case law involving time travel to decide if rape or not?” Let’s say the jury’s out.

About Time is released 4 September.

Rachel McAdams as Mary 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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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.