A young man with the ability to travel back through time slowly begins to realize that life is best lived always facing forward, mistakes and all.
"Dad always seemed to have time on his hands," says 21-year-old Tim as About Time begins. "He was eternally available."
And so he was … more so than Tim could have known while he was growing up. That's because all the men in Tim's family share a peculiar secret: They can travel through time, a fact that Dad reveals to Tim on his 21st birthday. Unlike some science fiction visions of time travel, these men can only go backward in time, not forward. And they can only travel through the span of their own lives to rewrite their own personal stories. So, going back and killing Hitler, as Dad notes, is right out.
Still, being able to travel back even through one's own life offers a unique opportunity for do-overs. Mess it up the first time and, well, you can always try, try again. All these time travelers have to do is go into a closet (or any dark place), close their eyes, clench their fists and think about where—or when, I should say—they want to go.
Tim begins by redoing a New Year's Eve party where he didn't quite have the courage to kiss a girl who wanted to be kissed, a miscue he rectifies the second time around. But it's not long before he sees the full possibilities of such power. In a conversation with his dad, he says it would be easy to amass huge sums of money. Dad warns him off: "Utterly screwed up your grandfather's life." Fine. Tim really isn't interested in money anyway. "For me," the awkward Brit confesses, "it was always going to be about love."
He tries, but fails, to rewrite the script of his first love, Charlotte, a friend of the family who had recently spent the summer living with them, mostly hanging out with Tim's sister, Katherine (who goes by the nickname Kit Kat). "Big lesson No. 1," Tim reports. "All the time travel in the world can't make someone love you."
And then it's off to London to begin a new chapter in his life. Without the aid of time travel, Tim meets a pretty-but-insecure young woman named Mary. It would have been love at first sight, except that they meet in a club where all the lights are out and they can only talk without seeing one another. Still, the lights-out approach works in Tim's favor, and he manages to procure equally smitten Mary's number when they finally see each other.
Then comes big lesson No. 2. In an effort to help the man he's rooming with, Tim travels back to that night to undo a mistake that really hurt the guy. It's a selfless, well-intended choice … but one that essentially "overwrites" the night he met Mary. When Tim finally tracks Mary down again, she has no memory of him, and he has to work much harder—and do even more time travel—to initiate a relationship with her again.
He succeeds in re-wooing her, and it's not long (depending on how you define that term) before they're married, and Tim's traveling even more to try to help others and correct things that don't go just right. Slowly but surely, however, the young husband (and soon, father) begins to realize that some mistakes can't be undone.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Tim's father, a retired university professor, adores his son. And he uses his time-traveling ability to attempt to right the wrongs that develop between them. One mistake he's broken up over is that he didn't tell his son he loved him while giving the toast at Tim and Mary's wedding, an omission he rectifies the second time around. He also tells his aging, dementia-addled brother that he loves him, a word of encouragement that Uncle Desmond later says gave him the best day of his life. That speech also finds Dad saying, "I'm not proud of many things in my life. But I am proud to be the father of my son."
Dad's overarching plan for how to use his power? He says that he lives each day normally—including experiencing all of its stresses and difficulties—then goes back and relives those days a second time to laugh at all the things that stressed him out. The message here is that the things we get so worked up over in life generally aren't worth the anxiety we devote to them.
Tim goes one step further. He embraces his father's counsel for a time, as it were. In the end, however, he realizes that the hard stuff and the things that don't go quite right are an inherent part of life, and that the goal isn't to iron out every rough spot, but to embrace the difficulties with joy and contentedness.
Twice Tim must make difficult choices about how to use his newfound ability. The first time, his troubled sister Kit Kat has been involved in a drunk-driving accident due to despondence over a failing relationship. Kit Kat's boyfriend has long been a thorn in her side, so Tim takes her hand and travels many years back to the party where she met him. (The time travelers can take others with them.) They rewrite her history, and the bothersome boyfriend is eliminated. When they return to the present, however, Tim encounters a serious unintended consequence of his "meddling": His baby girl has become … a baby boy because of the changes he made in history. Heartbroken, Tim seeks his father's advice, and Dad tells him that if you travel back beyond the birth of a child, it will result in the birth of a different child. So, in a particularly convoluted plot twist, Tim manages to undo what he's done in order to get his daughter back, a choice that means Kit Kat still has her accident and the consequences of years of bad choices.
Then, when Tim's dad succumbs to cancer, Tim begins traveling back to visit his dad in the past, which lessens the blow significantly. Mary wants to have another baby, however, and Tim now knows it will mean he can never visit his dad again. It crushes a part of him, but he agrees to Mary's desire, travelling back one more time to say farewell. "Saying yes to the future meant saying good-bye to my dad forever," he tells us.
Tim's father says, "I never said we could fix things. Life's a mixed bag. Look at Jesus: He was the Son of God for God's sake, and look how that turned out." At Dad's funeral, we hear the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds song "Into My Arms," which includes this repeated line: "Into my arms, O Lord."
Before Tim and Mary tie the knot, Tim runs into Charlotte again. They have dinner together, and it's clear that Charlotte wants to sleep with him. She invites him back to her apartment, but at the door Tim turns and runs back to his home with Mary, and proposes.
That's the good news. Here's the rest of it: Early in their relationship, Mary invites Tim home with her and makes it clear she's ready to have sex. We see him removing her pajamas and bra (her bare back is shown) as the two intertwine. Tim is disappointed in his first "performance," though, and decides to redo it … several times. Accordingly, dialogue (and their body positions) afterward indicates that each subsequent "first time" is more intense than the last.
Tim moves in with Mary. And during a wedding planning session, Mary does a striptease for him, promising she'll remove one item of clothing for every decision about the wedding Tim makes. (We see her bare back again, as well as her hands covering her breasts.)
An art museum exhibit featuring still photos of British supermodel Kate Moss includes an image of her topless. Kit Kat and Charlotte wear skimpy bikinis, and Kit Kat has a penchant for revealing, clingy clothing throughout. Tim sees Charlotte in a negligee. Mary tries on revealing dresses, labeling one as "too breasty" and saying that another makes her look like a "prostitute."
Speaking of which, Mary and Tim talk about whether prostitutes enjoy sex. Mary's best friend implies that she's quite promiscuous. Suggestive dialogue includes verbal references to oral sex and seeing bare breasts. Tim concludes that Charlotte and a female friend are a lesbian couple. (They're not, but it turns out that Charlotte's friend is gay.)
Kit Kat gets in a car wreck, leaving her with cuts and bruises on her face.
Crude or Profane Language
Five or six uses each of the f- and s-word. More than 30 misuses of God's name, including one pairing with "d‑‑n." Once or twice each we hear "h‑‑‑," "pr‑‑k," "d‑‑k," "a‑‑," "arse," "d‑‑n," "p‑‑‑," "b-gger" and "b‑‑tard." We see obscene hand gestures twice.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alcohol is consumed socially at parties, including a big New Year's Eve soiree. Tim says the next day that he's got a hangover. It's implied that Kit Kat's drinking habit is spiraling out of control.
Other Negative Elements
The film doesn't comment on the fact that Tim and his dad apparently never let their wives in on their time-traveling secret.
About Time is a maddeningly sweet film that, with some strategic edits, easily could have been more accessible to a much wider audience than its R rating will allow.
First, the sweetness part.
About Time tenderly and quietly focuses on the beauty, joy and wonder (as well as the inevitable grief) that flows from a family's love. It's an achingly beautiful thing to watch Tim and his dad go for one last walk on the beach, to play Ping-Pong one last time. It's an achingly beautiful thing when Tim's fierce mother says of her husband's imminent death, "I am so uninterested in life without your father." It's an achingly beautiful thing to watch Tim strive so hard to change his sister's hurtful past, only to realize that the consequences of editing her history are too much for him to bear. And when Tim tells us at film's end, "I just try to live each day … as if it were the final day of my full, extraordinary life," it's an achingly beautiful echo of Scripture's exhortation to seek contentment, to have hearts of gratitude and to cast our cares upon our heavenly Father.
For all that, however, there's still that maddening part to contend with.
Tim and Mary hop in the sack—repeatedly—very early in their relationship. They move in together not long after that. And their actions once again reinforce our culture's boundary-free mores when it comes to physical intimacy. Throw in some f- and s-words and more than 30 misuses of God's name, and all those achingly tender moments elsewhere start to feel achingly sullied as well.