Richard Curtis returns to the romcom and gives his favoured genre a mild sci-fi flavour in About Time. Domhnall Gleeson’s Tim is the film’s romantic hero. Shy, awkward, slightly shambolic, he’s cut from familiar cloth. Where he differs from his creator’s other leading men is his ability to travel through time, a gift possessed by all the men in his family, as his rumpled, diffident dad (Bill Nighy, of course) informs him on his 21st-birthday. With certain provisos in place (he can’t alter world events and can only revisit events in his own lifetime), all he needs to do is step into a small dark place, clench his fists and – Ta-da! – he’s gone back in time.
Naturally, he uses his birthright to woo a woman, the similarly shy and awkward Mary (Rachel McAdams, who’s been this way before in The Time Traveler’s Wife). And, equally naturally, his fumbling courtship necessitates repeated corrections of past gaffes and blunders. All this is gently amusing, lacking the sparkle of vintage Curtis, admittedly, but a huge improvement on his last directorial outing, The Boat That Rocked.
With the story shuttling between the family’s enviably picturesque coastal home in Cornwall and well-heeled parts of London, the film’s cosy middle-class setting will enchant some viewers and leave others gagging. But it’s hard not to warm towards Gleeson’s appealingly unconventional lead, even if the romance between his Tim and McAdams’ underwritten Mary never really catches fire. Indeed, it’s the tender relationship between Gleeson’s son and Nighy’s father that proves to be the film’s true love story and the one most likely to touch the viewer’s heart.