‘About Time’ and the Voyeurism of Time Travel Films

Domhnall Gleeson and Bill Nighy in About Time (2013). Tim and his father stand side by side at a party, watching someone off-screen. Tim looks a little scruffy in a white t-shirt and khaki flannel, whilst his dad wears a three piece suit. There are pink and purple balloons in the background, and Dad holds some grapes and a blue mug.
Universal Pictures

In 2013’s romantic comedy About Time, a secret is what lets the love story blossom. Written and directed by Richard Curtis, About Time follows Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) as he pursues Mary (Rachel McAdams) with the help of an old family secret revealed to him by his father (Bill Nighy). The secret is simple; the men in his family can travel back in time. 

Importantly, the men can only travel within their own lives or as Bill Nighy so eloquently puts it “you can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy, unfortunately”. Even with the rules explained, the internal logic of About Time makes no sense. Sure there are gaping plot-holes, but it doesn’t matter. Sure the actual science of this time travel is never explained, but again, it doesn’t matter. About Time doesn’t care about following the rules of science fiction when it is so clearly making its own world, one which operates under the rules of dreamlike romantic comedy. 

In moral philosophy, secrecy is often tied to evil. Not only is a secret often something shameful and remorseful, but the act of hiding is in itself evil. In a different film, perhaps even a lesser film, the narrative would take a detour examining the moral implications of the men in the Lake family hiding their incredible super ability to manipulate time and reality. Instead, About Time just decides that its characters are good people. The unwavering sincerity of About Time is what makes it special. Tim isn’t looking to accumulate masses of wealth and power or change the course of history, he couldn’t anyway. The fact that he has a poster of Amélie (2001) in his bedroom and his best friends seem to be his dad and his sister should tell you everything you need to know about his propensity for malice.

Instead of abusing his powers for evil, all Tim cares about is getting a girlfriend. Enter Rachel McAdams with a charming fringe. They meet in a restaurant which is totally in the dark. It’s a blind date, see. But instead of one meet-cute, the couple gets three; once by chance and twice contrived, at a Kate Moss exhibition and a party. Once again filling her duties as a time-traveller’s wife, McAdams’ character Mary is obviously adorable. She occupies Richard Curtis’ strange fascination with American women as romantic interest but more significantly, she remains unsuspecting of her partner’s abilities throughout the film.  

Domhnall Gleeson and Bill Nighy in About Time (2013). Tim and Dad stand together in a small storage room in their home, attempting to time travel. They both stand up straight with their fists clenched in front of them, showing physical exertion on their faces.
Universal Pictures

It is clear that the film believes that Tim’s time travelling is not an act of betrayal. But that doesn’t shake the idea that Tim and Mary’s relationship may be built on a sham. Knowing Mary’s feelings towards Kate Moss is akin to stalking someone on Instagram or seeing what embarrassing music they listen to on Spotify. Besides, it is not the surface level discussions about models which form the basis of long-lasting relationships. While there is a clear imbalance of information by their third date, eventually the two leads are all on the same page. Really, time travel gave Tim a head start to finish line which they both ultimately arrived at. 

Where the secrecy does become problematic when it comes to Tim and Mary’s first sexual encounter. He uses his abilities to have sex with her three times while she believes that each time is the first. It’s a strange sex scene, but we can only assume he did get consent each time. Yet, it does beg the question that is felt throughout the film; is Tim creepy or is he incredibly romantic? 

Time travel allows Tim’s imagination to enter alternative realities and for events to be erased in other people’s memories. In other words, Tim is voyeuristic in his romantic conquests, he can put a veil over his lover’s memory and rewind experiences for his pleasure. He can watch the spectacle of his life and change things at his will. There has truly never been a better superpower than rewinding your life to escape all your embarrassing moments. But Tim faces almost no consequences from his actions, he is certainly not being persecuted by society or thinking about larger butterfly-effects like repercussions at all. Here, time travel becomes an organ for perfecting new realities, seemingly at the whims of male fantasies. Maybe it’s telling that only the male members of the family can time travel. Perhaps it is because time travel is a grand excuse to be lecherous under the guise of love. 

Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson in About Time (2013). Tim and Mary stand together on the street after a night out, softly lit by store fronts and street lamps. They lean into each other, laughing together.
Universal Pictures

About Time makes no effort to call itself a sci-fi or fantasy, or engage with the long and layered typology of the genre. The very act of time travel is not attached to any iconography. There is no magical hot-tub, Tardis or DeLorean, no mad scientist or men in black suits. Nevertheless, what it does share with its predecessors is the belief that women simply do not see other tenses. In Back to the Future II (1989), Marty McFly’s girlfriend is heavily sedated through the whole adventure. In Midnight in Paris (2011), Owen Wilson’s character parties in roaring twenties, his partner,  Rachel McAdams again, goes sightseeing. 

Where things become troubling is when the men in these films abuse the laws of time travel. In Groundhog Day (1993), Bill Murray wins over Andie MacDowell by watching her every day. Even recently, Palm Springs (2020) found Andy Samberg’s character using the time loop to romance Cristin Milioti’s character and hook up with her “like a thousand times”. Taken out of the context of romantic comedy, these scenes play out very differently. They show men stretching the limits of consent in a way that does not look too different from date rape, and similar to most real-life cases, they also go without repercussion. 

In About Time, while time travel does not cause problems, it also does not solve any either. The film treats time as a background character or an important part of the scenery. By the end of the film, time travel plays a completely different role in Tim’s life. And like all good romantic comedies, everything neatly times up, yet that doesn’t excuse the film’s disturbing digressions. Despite its unrelenting sweetness and sincerity, About Time falls into the long list of films that is better enjoyed without any critical thinking. We can only hope the future of time travel films actually allow women to leave the present.  

by Amal Abdi

Amal (she/her) is an arts and culture writer from London. She is studying for an MA in Political Communications and cares about equally about international affairs and rom-coms. Some of her favourite films are Pride and Prejudice, Bend It Like Beckham and 10 Things I Hate About You. When she is not watching films you can find her listening to corny musical soundtracks or worrying about the state of the planet. You can find her on twitter at @amoollie_

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