“I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy,
To be calm when you’ve found something going on.
But take your time, think a lot,
Why, think of everything you’ve got.
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.”
-Cat Stevens, Father And Son
Entering the real world is a frightening and scary concept. Having gone through years and years of education, you stand on the precipice, the edge from which to jump into the unknown. In the end, it’s almost like nothing can possibly prepare for what comes next. The best way to learn is through experiences, and there are so many to choose from. It’s like standing at a fork in the road, only it’s not a fork because there are infinite paths laid out in front of you. They weave and intersect, and the possibilities are endless. So, how do you start your journey? Which path do you embark on first? How do you decide? This past fall, I finally made my first step on that journey, but I did so with the help of my father. My father and I haven’t always seen eye to eye. There are stories I could share, but I have no interest in challenging his parenting methods, which, for the most part, have been exemplary. As time has gone by, i’ve felt myself grow closer and closer to my father, whether through discussions of injustice and truth, or through sharing a meal of fried chicken while watching Little Miss Sunshine. He’s always been there to listen, not to tell, in an attempt to better understand. We’ve shared the occasional similar path or choice, but we also celebrate our differences. My father may not fully understand the career and life I intend on embarking on, but his willingness to be a part of that initial step is an act for which I will eternally be grateful. As we journeyed through the mid-western U.S., and some of Canada, we swapped stories, listened to Shakespeare, cracked jokes, walked along the streets of Chicago, Toronto, and Montreal (where we both felt a little insecure not being familiar with Canadian-French, or French-Canadian?), discussed our excitements and frustrations, eat poutine and gelato, and generally enjoyed each other’s company. We had the opportunity to see each other in a new light, watching the other in the environment of their passion, their true calling. On our return trip, we listened to one of my favorite actors, John Lithgow, read his biography Drama: An Actor’s Education, a book dedicated to his father and his father’s artistic vision. It was a special moment, I believe, for both of us. The trip defined our support for the other; our willingness to be a part of the other’s journey in pursuit of their goals and passions. It was a brief, important moment in 2013, but I’m glad I shared it with him.
It’s not hard for me to admit that father and child relationships in films really get to me. I’ve teared up at the death of Lincoln, Billy Beane listening to his daughter sing in Moneyball, the letters Benjamin sends to his daughter in Benjamin Button, Forrest Gump seeing his son for the first time, Mr. O’Brian admitting to his son (as best he can) that he was never a good father and to not follow in his footsteps in The Tree of Life, or even George Bailey consoling Zuzu in It’s A Wonderful Life. Is it my own personal connection with my father that shapes these emotions? Is it that I see my own life reflected in those actions? Is it that fathers remind me of role models or mentors? Is it my desire to be a father someday? I don’t know, really, it could be all of them combined, or even something I haven’t even discovered yet. I do know that, when it’s unexpected, it hits me the most. It’s safe to say I was expecting something completely different when I saw About Time. Richard Curtis is a staple of British romantic comedy, known best for penning screenplays for Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Notting Hill, as well as directing holiday charmer Love Actually. Watching the latter has become somewhat of an annual “must-watch” for my family come the end of the year, and I always enjoy its quick, but intimately touching thrills. Thinking I was to get more of the same, especially considering the marketing for the film, I snuggled in for some simple, cute fun. I would never have believed the film was more about a father and his son, a son and his father, until I’d actually seen the whole thing. And what a simple thing of beauty it is.
Domhnall Gleeson, son of the great Brendan Gleeson, has been on the rise for a couple of years now. He’s had brief, but notable moments in Never Let Me Go, True Grit, Dredd, and the last two Harry Potter films. Last year, his onscreen partnership with Alicia Vikander in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, was the best part of an ambitiously flawed retelling of the great Tolstoy story. Curtis could not have found a better leading man to match, and elevate, his material. Pegged by some as “the ginger Hugh Grant”, Gleeson is much more than that. As Tim, he’s a charming, flawed everyman, but one whose awkwardness and simplicity are relatable in their honesty. He’s a guy you want to see succeed in his attempts to change his life, but whose motivations and choices you don’t always agree with. He’s a real human being, not just a nice guy who never catches a break, and his selfishness is as frustratingly real as his triumphs are joyously vicarious. Partnered opposite Gleeson is Bill Nighy, as his father, or rather “Dad”. Nighy has been a favorite of mine since he spewed his first stream of disjointed curse words as Billy Mack in the opening scene of Love Actually. He has a magnificent range that does wonders for him in a variety of films, from franchises (Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean) to films about old Brits abroad (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) to animated voice work (Rango, Arthur Christmas) and everything in between (even previous entry The World’s End, as well as Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead). Curtis must really enjoy working with Nighy, seeing as this is their third effort together, and I hope their collaboration is one that continues to produce more and more interesting films. Nighy’s role, I believe, is more of a challenge to portray than one might perceive. He’s not just the wise, lovable patriarch. He’s a man who has been shaped by his ability to relive everything he chooses to, and, if he so desires, do it differently (Is this the first moment I mentioned time-travel? well, it involves time-travel). And yet, we don’t have the benefit of witnessing his character travel in time and make different choices because we only have the opportunity to see Tim do so. All of the weight, knowledge, and experiences that come with such a life we witness through his cheeky actions and fragile earnestness. Nighy and Gleeson have a wonderful chemistry with each other, believable in their journey from initial awkwardness, to friendship, to deep felt compassion and regret. It’s certainly one of my favorite onscreen pairings of 2013.
Of course, there is also the love story, which offers up another enjoyable and natural performance from Rachel McAdams. She is a good foil for Gleeson, and they have a wonderful believability as a couple. Their first “meet cute” is handled in a surprisingly fun manner, and their immediate attraction and awkwardness is so easily conveyed simply through their voices. Yet, much like To The Wonder, McAdams has an underlying insecurity and vulnerability that deeply humanizes her character, making her a girl we could recognize on the street, and not just another pretty face. There’s great supporting performances all around, including Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s mother, who is alternately sharp and emotional in her own right. Tom Hollander plays the token Curtis odd roommate, though Hollander is consistently enjoyable to watch in the wealth of strange fellows he’s had the good fortune to portray, and this is another curmudgeonly one to add. And, in her true breakout year, the stunning and incredibly talented Margot Robbie makes a couple appearances as one of Tim’s early fascinations. It would be easy for this particular character to be just a gorgeous passing fancy, for Tim as well as the audience, but Robbie lends a surprising depth to her few intimate exchanges with Gleeson, hinting at something that certainly could have been for Tim had he not made certain choices. The film also features Richard Griffiths in his last onscreen role, before his passing last year, in a tiny but amusing role, in the nature of which he was always great at.
For a film about time-travel, it’s incredibly simple and focused. The below-the-line elements blend in perfectly. There are no flashy specials-effects, no fast and crazy edits, or elaborate costume or set dressings. It’s very real, or what I imagine Cornwall and London might really be like, having never been there myself. Perhaps the most notable element apart from Curtis’ screenplay and direction is the music. There’s everything from the Killers to Ben Folds to Amy Winehouse to Nelly to The Cure to Ashanti to Nick Cave to Dolly Parton, each used to incredibly appropriate effect. In fact, one of the minor details of Tim’s relationship with his father is their shared enjoyment of Jimmy Fontana’s “Il Mondo”, which plays out wonderfully in an unexpected instance. Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”, which added an extra haunting feeling to the TV spots for this year’s Gravity, is also used to excellent effect here, though i’m still disappointed it wasn’t used in Gravity‘s film soundtrack. Regardless, it’s all very sincere, as Curtis desires it to be, and he, in turn, gives it his own personal stamp. His screenplay is littered with all the cute and romantic moments one would come to expect, but what is truly brave is his willingness to move past the honeymoon phase and almost away from the love story entirely. What I expected to be the whole film ended up being just the first half-hour or forty-five minutes, and from there on it took interesting and unexpected turns.
One could easily poke holes in Curtis’ concept of time-travel, but I don’t really think that’s the point. What matters most to Curtis are the little things in life. It’s easy to immediately jump to using such powers to attain the perfect relationship, the perfect job, the perfect life, and, actually, that’s what Curtis is kind of going for. However, it’s not about attaining, it’s about realizing. Tim uses his powers to form the perfect life as he sees it, only to have the inevitable unpredictability of life shake it all up. Some things can’t possibly be changed by going back in time, he realizes, or the consequences are drastic. Our past actions shape who we are as people, and without them, we are entirely different people because of our entirely different experiences. If the effects of time-travel are unpredictable, and potentially life-altering, how does one deal with that power? Tim turns to his father, as his father most likely turned to his own father, in search for comfort and answers. But as the time with his father grows shorter and shorter, he realizes that not a whole lot of those things really matter without the presence of his father in his life. When forced to choose between his father and a new step in his life, it’s not hard to understand how difficult of a decision that is. What he eventually learns from his father, in their final moments together, becomes the true take away of the film.
In our current world, we rush through the day, occasionally frustrated and annoyed with current circumstances, wishing they were different. Yet, we don’t take the time to take in everything that’s going on around us, that makes our life what it is, and it’s usually too late before we realize that the little moments in our lives have the potential to matter more than the greater things we believe will bring us true happiness. We take more for granted than we can possibly realize until we step back and open our eyes to the world: our world. With the power to travel through time, Tim’s father encourages him to relive every day and enjoy the simple pleasures until he can appreciate life without having to travel through time ever again. He encourages him not to think of what he doesn’t have, but to enjoy what is present and meaningful already in his life. The bonds between human beings are easy to accept at face value, but they shape us more than we can imagine. Friends, family members, acquaintances, daily encounters…they all have a part to play in our lives, but we rarely stop to appreciate their significance. Sometimes it’s only the loss of someone close, or even the potential of losing someone, that brings that realization forward. “I wish I could have spent more time with them,” you might say, or “I wish I had made more of that time that we had.” But we don’t have to wait until the time is passed to recognize it. We have the ability to enjoy each other’s company while we can. Time is fleeting, yes, but all we have is time, so why not make the most of it? Why not enjoy every moment of it? Then the ping-pong match between father and son isn’t just a game to pass the time, it’s a meaningful moment. Then skipping stones with your father isn’t just a traditional activity, but a shared recognition of the little things you both enjoy. Then a journey with your father isn’t just an intimidating step into the unknown, it’s an opportunity to share in each other’s presence, each at a very different, but very important, part of your lives, and a chance to acknowledge the support, compassion, and love you have for that other individual. That is the true potential of that gift. A gift of time.