The Review: There’s two ways you can travel in time in movies: the bold, brash way to arrive in style, like a modified Delorean (Back To The Future), a massive ball of electrical energy (The Terminator) or an electrified phone booth (Bill and Ted), or there’s the British way, typically through a small dark portal (Time Bandits) or by going to the toilet (FAQ About Time Travel). Richard Curtis’ new time travel film takes this to a new low of British restraint, where Bill Nighy announces to his son Tim (Domnhall Gleason) that men in the family have the ability to travel in time, by standing in a dark place, clenching their fists and concentrating. Now admittedly time travel movies are rarely about the mechanics of time travel itself and more about the implications, but there’s undoubtedly something very British about a method of time travel that could only be more understated and stereotypically British if it involved sighing forlornly while drinking a cup of tea. But time travel movies are two a penny, so the key is to deliver something new with it, and when the likes of Duncan Jones gave us the highly original Source Code two years ago, that’s no easy task. Two years ago… Oh, let’s not start that again. In fact, let’s start again.
[hides in cupboard and clenches fists]
Richard Curtis is the writer of the finest British comedy of the last thirty years. It’s called Blackadder, and I still regard career misanthrope and wrangler of cunning plans Edmund Blackadder as some sort twisted role model. Richard Curtis has also written a story involving time travel that successfully tackled serious issues in a thought provoking manner but still managed to be charming and fluffy, with an awkward leading man who might just be an archetypal British eccentric. It’s called Vincent And The Doctor, an episode of Doctor Who from 2010 that showcased how Curtis can push the boundaries of his own writing if he puts his mind to it. Richard Curtis even co-wrote two episodes of Blackadder that featured some form of time travel (Christmas Carol and Back And Forth), so quite why or how he’s managed to come up with a time travel film that doesn’t do a single original thing with the concept, or feature any significant laughs, is bemusing to say the least. Actually, About Time is more of a comedy drama than a straight-up comedy… Balls, gone wrong again. Do over!
[hides in cupboard and clenches fists]
Anyone reading this blog for any length of time will be aware that I often start my reviews with some form of personal insight as a prelude to my thoughts on the film. With a film such as About Time, that proves somewhat tricky, as the core relationship in the film isn’t actually Tim’s slightly creepy, stalkerish pursuit of Mary (Rachel McAdams), but instead his relationship with his father. Gleason and Nighy don’t exactly have a strong family resemblance – maybe Tim gets more from his mother, Lindsay Duncan, but surely the genetics of that would impact on the time travel? – but as someone whose father divorced his mother at the age of seven and effectively disappeared out of my life (me, not him, obviously), films built on strong father / son relationships are always likely to strike a raw nerve. If I was examining familial relations with time travel, I might not be pulling a McFly and inadvertently wooing my own mother, but I’d love to get more insight into my own father and his particular motivations, but that doesn’t interest Richard Curtis either. Not sure where I’m going with this. Bugger. One more try.
[hides in cupboard and clenches fists]
So I’ve now got one paragraph left to tell you about Richard Curtis’ film About Time, starring Domnhall Gleason, Rachel McAdams and Bill Nighy. Gleason is one of those British actors who has managed to do brilliant work on the periphery of some quality films in the past few years (Dredd, Never Let Me Go, True Grit, Anna Karenina and even a couple of Harry Potters) but comes into his own here, producing a warmer and more likeable Curtis lead than even Hugh Grant ever managed, but with that same bumbling awkwardness that’s quintessentially Curtis. In fact, almost every trope and plot point of About Time is very Curtisian, that British middle-class state that exists in Curtis’s films and almost nowhere else. What this has done is to have matured slightly, both in world view and in the quality of the production, feeling less staged and noticeably warmed by the presence of its three leads. It feels like a Richard Curtis film that’s trying not to look like a Richard Curtis film, but paradoxically ends up being about as clear an example of the genre as film Curtis has made. It’s a warm comfort blanket of a film, and if you’ve overdosed already on the saccharine output of Mr Curtis over the years then this won’t win you over, but if you’re looking to be cinematically cuddled rather than challenged then this has arrived in the nick of time.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s Curtis’ best looking film to date in respect of both cinematography and the charmingly cute appeal of his cast. Yes, even Bill Nighy.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for infrequent strong language and moderate sex references. Slight issue here. We’re averaging around one “f***” every twenty-five minutes, pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable to accompanied children under 12. Said children will also get repeated shots of Rachel McAdams in her bra and knickers and an extended, enthusiastic sex scene. I would be uncomfortable taking younger children to see this, because I’m a middle class prude who’s not as liberal as he’d like to be, but I personally would have put this at 15.
My cinema experience: Seen at a Cineworld Unlimited preview evening in Bury St. Edmunds, and after a showing of 2 Guns the previous week was full, I was surprised to see About Time with spaces in the audience. (Maybe it was too early for word of mouth to have built.) Lots of generally middle-class tittering but no huge laughs for the audience, who were also spared any projection or sound issues.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: You might remember the days when Woody Allen made universally acclaimed films. Sadly, in the eyes of most, the last time that happened consistently was probably the Eighties, and since 1989’s Crimes And Misdemeanours it’s been a succession of moderate successes and critical flops. But nostalgia is a powerful feeling, and every time a new film appears with Woody’s name on, you can feel everyone lining up, ready to give it a kicking but most actually hoping that somehow the easy charm and clever dialogue of his earlier hits could still be recaptured. If only he could travel back in time to understand what made his earlier films so successful…
Maybe it’s that constant nostalgic reflection, or maybe it’s the inspiration of the latest city to be his muse after his mixed London years, but the inspiration for Midnight In Paris of that nostalgic element seems to have revitalised Woody, and this is probably his best film since the Eighties. It’s easy to claim that there’s a formula to a good Woody Allen film, but actually what makes this one so refreshing is his willingness to stick to the formula, albeit with a few subtle variations. A lot of his best work deals with the metaphysical and is rooted in high concept, from Zelig to The Purple Rose Of Cairo and Deconstructing Harry, to name just a few, and Midnight In Paris gets its gimmick from a completely different side to Paris that Owen Wilson’s Gil discovers after midnight.
What Woody’s never had a problem doing is assembling a great cast, and this is no exception. One of those subtle variations on the theme is the Woody avatar that the central character normally represents (if it’s not Woody himself of course), and Owen Wilson is at his extremely likeable best as the bemused and frustrated writer, but it’s a role that Wilson does bring different aspects to, not least a wide-eyed astonishment at the events unfolding. The likes of Michael Sheen and Rachel McAdams offer solid support, but the other stand out is Marion Cotillard as Wilson’s muse, who seems to attract men like flies and has most of them around her little finger. There’s also plenty of background roles with actors having huge amounts of fun, and Alison Pill and Adrien Brody especially light up the screen in their brief turns.
The irony, of course, is that a film that’s so obsessed with nostalgia manages to successfully recapture the magic of Woody Allen’s days gone by. Midnight In Paris is a light soufflé of a film and would probably blow away in a strong wind, but it’s a delight from start to finish and Allen gets the most out his slender concept. Key to the film’s success are Allen’s early Parisian navel-gazing, which means that once the plot kicks in, the pace fairly rattles along, that the cast make the most of their varied roles and that it’s all wrapped up satisfactorily at the end of the reasonable running time. For any Woody fans, they’ll be thrilled that their hero has managed to find himself once again; for the more general film fan, it’s a great concept executed in a thoroughly entertaining way, and let’s just hope it doesn’t take Mr Allen another twenty years to hit these heights again.
Why see it at the cinema: Paris hasn’t looked this good since Ratatouille, and Woody’s bringing the chuckles back so it’ll be a good night out with the middle classes.
The Score: 9/10