Tuesday, September 24, 2013

About Time for a return to Curtisland


Those of us who are partial to “Curtisland” have had to wait ten years for the next instalment – “Love Actually” (2003) was the last film in the genre. Curtisland is that corner of Middle England inhabited (mostly) by twenty-something upper-middle class people who live somewhat unreal lives mostly as a member of a group of bright (mostly) attractive (usually) louche (sometimes) and funny (consciously or unconsciously) friends. It first appeared in the 1994 hit film “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and again in “Notting Hill” (1999) and “Love Actually”. It also featured strongly in “Bridget Jones Diary” (2001) and its successor Bridget Jones – The Edge of Reason (2004). All of these movies were written or in the case of the Bridget Jones films part-written by Richard Curtis who also visited the territory a little in some of the episodes of the BBC series “The Vicar of Dibley” (1994-2007) which he co-wrote, but less so in Blackadder.

Curtisland is liberal and tolerant and contemptuous of those who are not. It accepts weaknesses among its residents so long as they are not the venal weaknesses of prejudice and meanness. Stupidity is looked down upon as is the crime of being boring. But dim-ness is not a concern provided the dim person is not unpleasant or a bore. Commercial failure (running a bookshop which sells too few books or a restaurant that nobody goes to as in “Notting Hill”) is not seen as real failure but as charming. I would argue that the underlying geniality of the films not only makes them engaging but that it can also be a very subtle force for good. In “Four Weddings” two of the characters, Gareth (Simon Callow) and Matthew (John Hannah) are gay and have been in a long term relationship together. At Gareth’s funeral Charles (Hugh Grant) says “… its odd isn’t it – all these years we’ve been single and proud of it, we never noticed that two of us were to all intents and purposes married all the time”. This was now nearly twenty years ago and it would be my contention that this sub-plot in the film probably did more for understanding and tolerance of gay relationships then any of the campaigning of the Gay Power groups. Indeed it may even have been one of unheralded seeds which were eventually to grow into the “Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act” in 2013.

But to explain the joke is to kill the joke and we shouldn’t be too analytical about Curtisland and make too many claims. The films are entertainment and often make us laugh out loud – at least the first three did. The main accusation thrown at Curtis is that the films are sentimental. He faced up to that amusingly in the script book of “Love Actually” which reproduced a poster suggestion the copy of which was as follows: “If you thought/NOTTING HILL/FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL And BRIDGET JONES DIARY Was a load of sentimental rubbish. You’re not going to like this. Love actually”

Sentimentality is a pretty subjective concept. The American author Mitch Albom said “Critics have a problem with sentimentality. Readers do not. I write for readers.” I don’t know whether Richard Curtis would agree with this but I suspect that he might! And with Graham Greene who said that “Sentimentality – that’s what we call the sentiment we don’t share.”

Which brings me, finally to “About Time” (“about time” you might say!). Yes it is an extremely sentimental film but the RomCom bit is actually fairly unsentimental and rather good. Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) , a ginger-headed Brit, falls for Mary (Rachel McAdams) , a seriously pretty American who falls for him. They get it together and get married and have babies. That to do this Tim has to use a facility to travel back in time (he gets in a dark cupboard and clenches his fists to do this) to earlier moments in his own life is endearing and allows for some amusingly restructured moments. Not least when he travels back to rescue Mary from a jerk of a boyfriend by ensuring that they don’t even meet! The meeting, falling in love, marriage and baby-making of Tim and Mary happens fairly quickly – in a two hour film it occupies most of the first half hour and not much more. So what actually is the real point of most of the film if it’s not about these two? Well, in a phrase, it is a paean to parenthood. There are two equally sentimental aspects to this. The first is the relationship between Tim and his father (Bill Nighy). The second is the baby-making and delights of parenting that Tim and Mary share. Nighy, as ever, plays himself very well. He’s the sort of father who doesn’t effuse with touchy-feelyness. But gradually as the film progresses and as he brushes, losingly, with mortality he feels the need to tell his son he loves him (etc. etc.). I found all this pretty cloying and not awfully interesting. It’s a two-way thing of course so Tim wants to bond with his father as much as Dad wants to be closer to him. Poor old Mum (nicely played by an under-used Lindsay Duncan) doesn’t get much of a look in.

But what of the parenting of Tim and Mary? This takes up a lot of screen time. Here they really do run the gamut of emotions from A to B. I cannot recall a film I’ve seen with so much gratuitous baby business in them. Now I must reveal a bias here. Baby stuff is a sentiment I certainly done share. No doubt others in the packed cinemas that are watching “About Time” around the world will not agree with me and Curtis is being very clever in giving this sentiment a free run. A lot of sighs and “how sweet” as another baby bootee dangles - from Honduras to Hong Kong no doubt! And as the lovely parents move from only wanting one child to wanting two and then three … well plenty of the Mums and Dads in the audience will have done the same no doubt and will relate to this. As they will to every child-raising cliché you can imagine – the “first day at school” not excluded.

If we combine the Father/Son story and the Baby-making story together under the general “paean to parenthood theme” this is, as I say, what most of the film is about. And if that’s your thing you’ll no doubt love it. I rather sank in my seat as it went on.

Far better for me was the theme illustrated by some time travel moments of living as fully as possible every day. Not quite living every day as if it was your last – but in that area. Indeed Tim sums it up in just this way “I try to live every day as if it were the final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life,” There is one excellent sequence when Tim goes through a day without laughing or smiling much. Too busy to notice as individuals the people around him. Then he decides to reprise the day with time travel and this time he makes an effort to relate. The serving girl in “Pret a Manager” smiles back at him when he smiles at her. You get the idea. I liked that a lot though it’s best to be a tad selective as to who you smile at in the real world! There could be hazards along the way.        

Surrounding the main characters in Curtisland there are always secondary characters who bumble through the film – often making one major comic turn along the way. In “About Time” there is Tim’s batty sister (as in Notting Hill) Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) who is rather more than batty actually and nearly dies as a result of a drunken car crash at one point. She is rescued by Tim and Mary because she is loveable really and just needs a good man, rather than a rat, to save her. The good man is another member of the Ginger Tribe (Tim is Ginger) Jay (Will Merrick) and in the end they have settled down together and they have a baby. No surprise there then!  Then there is the role usually played by Rowan Atkinson of the strange eccentric. Tom Hollander got the part of the foul-mouthed boozy playwright Harry. I thought that this was a very funny portrayal – a man so unpleasant you feel he must have graduated with a PhD in nastiness. Tim’s “Uncle D” (Richard Cordery) is also eccentric although whether that eccentricity comes from dimness or early onset Alzheimer’s it is difficult to tell. He’s there rather like the dim rich toff Tom (James Fleet) in “Four Weddings” as a sort of “person who allows us to show how liberal and tolerant we are” character. There is a cameo from Margot Robbie as the disturbingly gorgeous Charlotte with whom Tim should really have had a bit of fun either at the time of their meeting or on a return visit!  - that would be one moment I’d get into the cupboard for!

This is a two-hour film and is I would suggest at least half-an-hour too long. The story of the accident to Kit Kat just goes on and on – that’s the trouble with time travel life tends to repeat itself. There are also some plot inconsistencies and tricks which make little sense. And for me anyway the liberal rationale of the film, whilst there, did not produce any real insights – unlike, as I said, in “Four Weddings”. Would I recommend it – perhaps not if you aren’t into babies and slushy father/son scenes. On the other hand Rachel McAdams is absolutely lovely as well as being a very good actor. She handles the first sexy encounter with Tim, and its repeats, very well - and there is also a bit of a tasteful striptease which brought the males in the audience at the screening I attended to lean forward in their seats! It is derivative of Curtis’s earlier films – I still can’t work out if this is sometimes a joke or not. For example there is a “trying on different dresses” scene which is identical to the one in “Four Weddings” (except that they are party dresses not wedding gowns). It’s completely unnecessary and not even particularly entertaining – though Ms McAdams looks good in all the dresses. Perhaps that was the point?

If you think that you might “share the sentiment” then go along to “About Time”. If you think that you might not - but you go anyway – you might need to shut your eyes a bit at times!