Richard Curtis eschews his usual smugness and fakery in his latest feelgood feature, About Time
Rupert Everett once described the director Richard Curtis as the Leni Riefenstahl of Blair’s Britain. That’s a perfect summing up of the world of Four Weddings, Love Actually and Notting Hill: impeccably liberal characters who one just knows have the correct views on the things that matter, a lot of somewhat forced middle-class swearing and self-conscious eccentricity, a noticeable absence of working-class type chappies but lots of jolly, well-intentioned inclusiveness all the same. The films are precision-tooled, often well-written and sometimes funny, and London, which has traditionally tended to look grim when used as a movie setting, always emerges as sparkling, optimistic and yes, vibrant. Yet somehow you still find yourself pulling away, vaguely resisting what is so obviously assumed to be charming but which ultimately feels fake and smug.
Much of this comes down to good old class — not all of us find the upper middles as fascinating, endearing and quirky as Curtis. The milieu of his latest release, About Time, is just as well-funded as ever but is tinged with a bit of bohemianism, and while the young leading man (Domhnall Gleeson) is as inept and puppy-like as Hugh Grant used to be, there’s an informality and classlessness about him which has no hint of the hidden, hard snobbery which one suspected lurked in the latter. So far, so improved. And there’s also a twist, uncharacteristic of Curtis: the boy has inherited from his father (Bill Nighy) the ability to travel back in time and put right mistakes, especially of the emotional kind.
I had just come back from holiday when I saw this film and, having pondered the idea of chucking it all in and setting myself up as a fisherman in a small Spanish coastal town, was highly suggestible to tales of the road not taken. So sure enough, I was soon absorbed. Travelling in time is after all another form of vacationing from real life. And you do care about the characters in this story — increasingly my only requirement for an enjoyable film — and want it to go right for our hero. The device is used sparingly enough not to become absurd, there are no silly special effects, and when the skies begin to get stormy towards the end, we know that everything that could be put right will be.
And the moral of the story is? Quite simply the one which we’ve seen in movies from It’s a Wonderful Life to Groundhog Day: carpe diem. Don’t sweat the small stuff, look around you, appreciate the beauty of the world and its people, tell your loved ones you love them, for who knows when we will go under that proverbial bus. As a simple message, this remains powerful and alluring: a slight adjustment in attitude and life can be transformed. Gleeson is seen smiling indulgently at a selfish fellow Tube traveller instead of getting stressed over the irritating loud music. That could be me, you think. It’s down to me, I could have that life, one in which anger is banished, where I never again have to write articles about anti-social behaviour, where I can agree with Gwyneth Paltrow that yes, it’s all good. If this is what feelgood is, then I left About Time feeling as good as it gets.
The mood was slightly dented when somebody let a glass door swing in my face a few minutes later with no hint of an apology, but it wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me that really, all this good-feeling stuff is about as reliable a guide to life as a week spent drinking cocktails by a Spanish pool. The truth is, it mostly isn’t down to us. While we are saying hello to the flowers and the trees, recessions happen, we lose our jobs, countries are invaded. Which brings us to a deeper truth: people in Richard Curtis films are, as my father used to say, OK for a few bob.
Lack of money was providing Matt Damon with no end of anxiety in the summer’s last big sci-fi blockbuster, Elysium. Our world, a century or so hence, has been rendered toxic by overcrowding and poverty, and the rich have taken off to live in a massive space station on which has been created a perfectly manicured landscape of white mansions, immaculate lawns and swimming pools. Damon-muscled-up and shaven-headed-struggles on with dreams of reaching this Nirvana, but an industrial accident suddenly shortens his odds-with five days to live, it’s now or never.
Like the better science fiction there’s a kernel of truth to all this. Now that we know even the middle classes are about to have their well-paid livelihoods replaced by technology, the super-rich really will be the only ones who can insulate themselves from all sorts of nastiness.
The world they choose to build in Elysium — overseen by a spiky and brittle Jodie Foster, busying about like a buyer for John Lewis — might appear oddly suburban, but at least it’s clean, tidy and ordered. Here on Earth, it’s one big shanty town, there’s no proper healthcare, and there are seemingly a hell of a lot of ill people. The rich have their own individual scanners which cure all known diseases, as well as reconstructing crushed faces and basically ensuring eternal life and good health.
The presence of Damon — Hollywood’s über-liberal — makes the point even clearer, just in case you didn’t get it — private health — care nasty, Obamacare wonderful. With the earth in such ruins, one could conclude that there’s little point in staying alive anyway. The film is at least attempting to say something, which gives all the majestic visuals a reason. But the time might be right, perhaps, for a counterintuitive blast against the stream of apocalyptic epics we have become used to. As Richard Curtis surely knows, we all need hope.