Two, if not the two, defining literary characters of our age are Hannah Horvath (of HBO’s Girls) and Bella Swann (of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series). They represent broad trends in thought and life that are of consequence to contemporary womanhood and (therefore) civilization.
The Hannah Horvath trend is marked by pathological anxiety, the lack of a pre-determined life script, and the painful self-awareness of both. Outside of HBO, the artistic flagship of this movement is the popular creative-writing site Thought Catalog. A glance at the articles of any two-day period will confirm both features: “Being Your Own 20-Something,” “I Never Knew My Father But I Still Miss Him,” “Ten Tips for Tricking Depression,” and “25 New Things to Worry About When You Worry About ‘Having It All’” are all pretty telling.
If Hannah Horvath represents the hurdles of today’s young women, the wildly popular Bella Swann delivers utopian emancipation from these concerns. A normal girl, in a revolutionary inversion of the vampire tale*, gains eternal life, superpowers, and a man who worships her, cares for her, and also delivers amazing sex, while still coming to respect her independence and individuality. All stemming from a race of creatures with a lust for blood.
In a century, the stuff of nightmares has become the American dream.
It’s in that context that I want to place About Time, the new romantic comedy from Richard Curtis. The movie has been out for a bit, and if you’re thinking about seeing it, odds are the first thing you did was get on Rotten Tomatoes and notice its 68 percent rating. The critical responses, as perhaps with any romantic comedy, have been divided primarily by their emotional response to the film—they either find it terribly maudlin, or they weep.
I wept, the most in a theater since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two. Psychoanalyze as you will. Whether you find the film obesely cheesy or incredibly relevant to your heart of hearts could depend entirely on how your digestion is going that day. Still, I say the film has objective merits—particularly the casting, which makes squarely archetypal characters fun to watch. But I would also argue that the reason it has spoken to 68 percent of critics and over 80 percent of reporting audience members is that this “paranormal romance” addresses the discontents of Hannah Horvath without the self-deification of Bella Swann.
About Time is about Tim (played by Domnhall Gleeson), who learns on his 21st birthday that the men of his family can time travel—within their own lifetimes, and only from the past back to the present. No flying cars, Napoleon, or Soc-raytes here. This is a revelation that Tim’s dad (Bill Nighy) correctly describes as “uh, spooky.” What to do with this superpower? Well, in the first of a few moments of first-act turbulence, Tim narrates bluntly: “For me, it was always going to be about love.”
Uh-huh. Not exactly the kind of line to overcome an upbringing of stiff upper lips and John Wayne movies.
But as the story progresses, it’s clear that director Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually) is on his game.
Tim gets to test his powers of woo when typical blonde temptress Charlotte (Margot Robbie) comes to stay at the family’s Cornwall cottage. He soon learns that no matter how much you go back in time to correct your awkward conversations with the fairer sex (which, let’s face it, would be nice), you can’t force chemistry. That’s fine though, because he meets it in Mary (Rachel McAdams), a hipster-y belle with a new fringe and a taste for Kate Moss’s early work. After a few tries Tim gets his “meet cute” down right, and they fall straight into love/bed.
Something odd happens next. These barely twenty-somethings, due perhaps to Mary’s parents little-discussed conservatism, get married. Because Mary is pregnant. The time-honored, now practically defunct tradition of the shotgun wedding brought about by social pressure plays out like a fairy tale against the backdrop of their bustling cosmopolitan existence.
And I’ll be damned if the characters aren’t actually blissfully happy that they settled down young, had kids, worked at their bourgeois but relatively unglamorous jobs, and moved into a house.
Now here’s the difference between this outcome and that of the Bella Swann narrative, which can also count a wedding and a pregnancy in its pedigree. The resolution of the current “supernatural romance” drama praises escaping death, not facing it. It has a few gothic trappings but no memento mori. It answers the Horvathian fear of age and decay (a symptom of which could, just maybe, be the rise of a plastic surgery industry devoted to turning humans into living dolls—think about that one for a second), with premature deification, vampiric immortality without the unquenchable thirst.
In About Time, on the other hand, the supernatural characters make a generational choice to die, to forgo their opportunity of eternal earthly life to allow nature to take its course. It’s a resolution to so many things that a bustling cosmopolitan existence—and a yearning for the fountain of Eternal Youth—have thrown into doubt and confusion.
And as critics have noticed, the “cuteness” factor is through the roof. I think that’s kind of the point. It’s got everything the higher level of rom com should have, and more. Its title track, “How Long Will I Love You,” is sappy/catchy enough to join the rom-com soundtrack Hall of Fame along with “Closing Time” by Semisonic and “There She Goes Again” by The Velvet Underground. Domnhall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams are sexed down, not up. Bill Nighy is at his most likable. Lydia Wilson, Tom Hollander, Richard Cordery, Joshua McGuire, and Will Merrick all stood out as supporting cast members. And there is a bittersweet appearance by the late Richard Griffiths, Order of the British Empire.
About Time may be trite—it’s certainly not Austen—but it’s still good. And maybe I just have my cuteness blinders on, but it seems to offer morals about love that a lot of us need to hear right now. It contradicts the example set by Western civilization’s modern elite, who in the words Patrick Deheen, a professor of political theory at Notre Dame, “seek the mastery of necessity and the overcoming of accident by means of the awesome controlling power of science and technology. In the background is their vision of overcoming tragedy—of never having to choose between incommensurable goods—and ultimately escaping all limitations, finally death itself.”
All in all, it’s about time someone made a movie like this. Forget your beef with sentimentality and not having a time-travel plot that’s airtight. The movie is very much in earnest, and that’s a good thing.
*I am indebted to Victoria Nelson’s analysis of the evolution of vampire tales in her excellent book Gothicka.
—Tim Wainwright enjoys writing about movies, politics, and the sexes. You can follow him on twitter @Tim_Wainwright.
—Joshua Parr (designer) lives in New York City and works in television news. He enjoys spending time with his wife, being creative, and broing out.