Every year around Christmastime I watch Love Actually, alongside whoever is willing to watch it with me. Every year for ten years now, and I’m looking forward to it again. Love Actually is one of those movies everyone agrees is pretty great, even normal people: as smart as a successful, big-production romantic comedy can probably get. I still remember leaning in with pleasure for the first time as Colin Firth leads a town to the Portuguese restaurant where he’ll propose, as that little boy playing Liam Neeson’s stepson outruns airport security (surely courting death in our post-9/11 world) to see his crush before she flies home, as Billy Mack beats out the little-pricked wankers in the boy band “Blue” to take the year’s #1 song hit.
The man behind Love Actually is British director Richard Curtis, whose new release is the gentle time-travel love story rom-com About Time. The movie comes out in wide release this Friday, but luckily for me it came out in limited release yesterday for major cities like Chicago, and its near staging areas like Evanston. My expectations for Curtis going in were high this close to Love Actually season, especially with time travel love tossed in to boot. Would he pull off another quiet triumph?
I have to start off by talking about Rachel McAdams. Domhnall Gleeson is exactly right as Tim, and Bill Nighy Billy-Macks it up in a quiet way that works well as Tim’s father. McAdams is the female lead, Mary, and while Mary is not the protagonist, Rachel is the star. I don’t mean that she’s propped up or emphasized.
See, I’ve made a serious pastime of hating Rachel McAdams. Couldn’t stand her. Her smug conversation, her leering expression, her self-satisfied bearing. I would deliberately avoid the movies she was in until this one.
And do you know what? Rachel McAdams wins. She is transformed, here, from her first appearance, into the loveliest of shy, kind objects of affection this side of your mother. Mary is the most likable woman on the planet. It isn’t the darkened hair or the glasses, though they are telling props: it’s the tentative eyes, the caring warmth, the teasing-child lilt of her voice in joking. Mostly it’s the smile – a new one she learned just for this movie – and when she uses it, she’s her, the prettiest girl in the world. Rachel McAdams does her job. A touch, a touch, I do confess’t.
There’s something about being taken care of by someone who knows what they’re doing. When it comes to storytelling, that’s part of the master class – as an aspiring writer, I know. When your voice and talent make the audience trust the story you are telling so much, they can stop thinking about it and just be in it. When you know what you are doing.
Richard Curtis knows what he is doing. You feel it. You know it. You don’t worry about it. You watch his movie. You smile. It is good.
If there’s a flaw in About Time, a thing that will keep it from being a big watch-every-year classic, it is that the movie doesn’t reach out far or wide ambitiously. The time travel angle avoids all of the deep and ambiguous emotions and depressing pragmatic tragedies of, say, The Time Traveler’s Wife. The love story, thoughtful and funny and real, sidesteps the grand sweeping gestures and catharsis of, say, Love Actually (note, knowingly, the proposal scene here). It is simply the story of one “ordinary, extraordinary” love. And that is deliberate. The value of the simple and quiet and kind shines through every knowing frame, and makes us feel it as important. And that is good.
Something stuck with me that I think is at the heart of things here, something Tim’s Dad says (the parents are credited as “Dad” and “Mum”). He says no one is happier than those who fall in love with someone kind. There are no evil villains in this story, no daring heroics – much less any gunfights or fisticuffs – but there are protagonists nonetheless, protagonists like us, trying to do the right thing, doing life things that are daring in themselves, and some are kinder than others. You can’t help but know after watching them that someday, looking back in time, we’ll all wish we had used that criterion a lot more decisively when choosing who to put our time and love into for long parts of our life: How kind are they?
When we’re grandparents like Dad and Mum, and the people we love are too: how kind were they? How kind will they be then? How kind will we be? The heroes of this movie are kind. And it is good.