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'About Time' review: Richard Curtis's directorial swansong

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Director: Richard Curtis; Screenwriter: Richard Curtis; Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Margot Robbie; Running time: 123 mins; Certificate: 12A


About Time marks the end of Richard Curtis's directorial career and, though he's a fine writer, that probably isn't a great loss to the industry. This film demonstrates why; it is difficult to categorise - billed as a romantic comedy but leaning towards a drama, ambitious but overlong, funny but uneven, full of his trademark witty dialogue and completely implausible scenarios.

It's not the fact that Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) can travel back in time that stretches credibility, it's the fond childhood memories of sitting on the beach in Cornwall taking afternoon tea with the family - "every day, even when it was raining" - then returning home to his country pile where dad (Bill Nighy) would project a film onto the exterior wall for the evening's entertainment.

Even the Little Lord Fauntleroy would be tempted to ask, "Really...?"

And then, Tim meets the girl of his dreams, Mary (Rachel McAdams set to geek mode), but this happens in a too-trendy London restaurant where punters are asked to dine in pitch black darkness. The scene is funny for about a minute, but Curtis drags it out, holding focus on just a few pinpoints of light and delivering the old 'Ouch, that's my eye' gag.

'About Time' film still

© Working Title

It seems his heart isn't really in this romantic comedy lark anymore, but there are sharper observations. Initially, getting a girlfriend is the reason Tim hits rewind on his life and there are faint echoes of Groundhog Day as he experiments with ways to impress blonde bombshell Charlotte (Margot Robbie), then Mary, saving one of the bigger laughs for their first night together.

Eventually though - and it does take a while - the boy-meets-girl story begins to fade into insignificance. Tim is side-tracked by an extraneous subplot involving his emotionally vulnerable sister (Lydia Wilson), but it's the relationship between Tim and his dad (who has passed down the time-travelling gene) that seems to hold the bigger fascination for Curtis.

Nighy is, as usual, thoroughly charming in an offhand way and he has a rapport with Gleeson that feels sincere. It means that, in conveying the importance of this relationship, Curtis doesn't have to tug very hard on the heartstrings - though, inevitably, he does. Curtis needs restraint and perhaps the best way to ensure this is to keep him behind a keyboard, away from the set.

So many emotional ups and downs and a peppering of urbane humour do at least afford Gleeson the chance to show off his versatility. Thus far, he's played small parts in big movies (Harry Potter, True Grit) as well as the moody romantic Levin in Anna Karenina. This is an unwieldy film and he carries it well, evoking the ruffled, awkward politeness of Hugh Grant but without the smug centre.

The women are only required to play to type, but McAdams is a good comic foil, bewildered and bemused by Tim's odd behaviour as he flits in and out of time. That he chooses not to share this part of his life with her is even more strange and further undermines the romance. You probably wouldn't hit rewind to see it all played out again, although the film does have its moments.

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