Time travel is a staple in cinematic storytelling, from Marty McFly’s famous attempt to reunite his parents in Back to the Future to our favorite superheroes racing through the past to collect infinity stones in Avengers: Endgame.
Writer-director Richard Curtis puts a contemporary spin on the time travel concept with his underrated feature About Time. Curtis is known for British romantic comedies such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill and Love, Actually. His upcoming film Yesterday follows a struggling musician who wakes up in a world where The Beatles never existed. About Time has a similarly dreamlike plot that takes a personal approach to going back in time.
Domhnall Gleeson stars as Tim, a dorky law student who has little luck with women. His father (the always-exceptional BIll Nighy) lets him in on a family secret: the male members of his lineage can time travel. All Tim has to do is enter a dark room and think of a specific moment in his life, and suddenly, he’s there.
But it’s the other secret his dad tells him that makes About Time so memorable: that Tim can use this gift not to manipulate his past, but to relive it.
Though Tim initially uses his power to find love with Mary (the ageless Rachel McAdams in her second role as a time traveler’s wife), he eventually takes his dad’s advice: “He told me to live every day again, almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time, noticing.”
Though the film has several high points, from Tim’s romance with Mary to the special bond he shares with his dad, it’s these moments of “noticing” that set About Time apart. We see Tim appreciating the smallest things, like the mundanity of office meetings and the simple joy of coming home at the end of a long day.
Curtis created a wholeheartedly sincere film with a thoughtful, reflective approach to time travel through the eyes of a regular man. He’s not looking to save the world, just his memories. Tim’s life is ordinary, like most of ours – but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t love the chance to go back and relive some of it.
About Time begs the question: What would you do with the ability to go back in time, without a special mission in mind? No infinity stones to track down or sports almanacs to recover, just the chance to make different choices, either 15 minutes or 15 years ago. To read more books, to be a little bit kinder. To skip rocks or look up from your phone or go back to that concert.
Though time travel is always an exciting element in film, Curtis uses it as a device to help audiences appreciate the past without having to change it. About Time serves as a funny, refreshing reminder that we can’t really change our choices or relive our finest moments, but we can do a better job of noticing the good stuff while it’s happening. Tim is proof that even without Pym particles or DeLoreans, we can time travel every day.