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About Time

Entry updated 7 December 2016. Tagged: Film.

UK film (2013). Universal Pictures. Written and directed by Richard Curtis. Cast includes Lindsay Duncan, Domhnall Gleeson, Tom Hollander, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy and Margot Robbie. 123 minutes. Color.

Shortly after his twenty-first birthday, Tim (Gleeson) is told by his father (Nighy) that the men in their family have the ability to Time Travel within the limits of their own past. Tim uses this knowledge to win the affections of Mary (McAdams), and to fine-tune many of the aspects of his upwardly-mobile life as a London lawyer.

Screenwriter and director Richard Curtis is plainly no stranger to the historiography of time travel, having previously used a Timeslip in Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988) and Blackadder: Back and Forth (1999). His interest in its more mundane use as a narrative device, as an authorial means of moving characters where they need to be, is manifest as early as his much-lauded script for the non-genre Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), much of the cast of which arguably exists in limbo, only reappearing for seasonally-spaced public occasions. The reason and mechanics of the time travel in About Time are never explained, serving instead as a reset button (see also Time Loop) with a set of arbitrary and often broken rules, allowing Tim to explore, in a very British fashion, nuances of manners and protocol in the wooing of Mary and their subsequent life together as young parents. In a genre thickly populated with similar ideas, Curtis's script is notable for some particularly restrictive conditions. One of the "rules" of time travel is apparently that only men can do it, injecting a note of permanent dishonesty into the central romance, and reducing female cast members to pliant, fungible objects or damsels in potential distress (see Women in SF). Tim icily disapproves of his sister's abusive boyfriend, regarding their relationship as a stroke of reparable bad luck, and yet has no qualms about inserting himself into Mary's life mere moments before she is destined to fall in love with another man. His father, meanwhile, claims that he has mainly used his ability to read and reread the works of Charles Dickens.

Although it is theoretically possible for Tim to travel anywhere in his personal past timeline, he is discouraged from travelling before the conception of his children, since the contact of a particular sperm with a particular ovum is a million-to-one Jonbar Point, and liable to result in a different child if re-run. Tim's willingness to timeslip during his wife's pregnancy implies that he does not regard his child as a reality until it is actually born. Love for one's child becomes the most precious and yet limiting emotion, a fact only comprehended by Tim after his father's death, when he realizes that the birth of another child will forever prevent him from sneaking off to meet with his father in past timelines. The film largely sidesteps the possibilities of larger-scale meddling, heroism or manipulating any timestreams but Tim's own, except for its romantic assertions: firstly that any mediocre day can be improved by living it a second time, and secondly that every day could well be a perfect day in hindsight, and should be approached accordingly. [JonC]

see also: Children in SF; Groundhog Day.


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