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.

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era