Imagine if you could close your eyes, concentrate, and then magic yourself back in time to re-do something that may have gone wrong in your life? From dropping a family heirloom, say, to stupidly walking out on the love of your life, would you be tempted to re-do it if you could?
Tell the truth. It would be hard not to at some point, right?
That’s the premise of "About Time," the breezy new romantic film about time travel and second chances written and directed by Richard Curtis ("Love Actually") in which Ireland’s Domhnall Gleeson, 30, finally emerges as the sensitive leading man he was born to be.
To some, and American audiences especially, it will probably look like Gleeson has emerged fully formed as a leading man who’s ready for his close-up. But the truth is it’s taken him a decade to get to this new career plateau, and he’s certainly paid his dues along the way in workaday roles in the "Harry Potter" franchise and in well received stage roles (he was nominated for a Tony Award in 2006 for his role in Martin McDonough’s "The Lieutenant of Inishmore") and independent films.
But for years Gleeson’s trajectory has trended only upward, which is why he’s had so long to prepare himself for what’s about to happen next, which, in a word, is stardom.
With his star turn in "About Time," where he unarguably walks away with the film thanks to a very thoughtful and funny performance, Gleeson’s about to find he has something he hasn’t had before — choices.
It’s a smart move to make his debut in such a calculated crowd pleaser. Curtis’ film is overly formulaic and at times looks factory farmed to wring tears from the eyes of the hardest hearts, but Gleeson’s lovely performance defies cynicism and rescues the whole film from the kind of teeth-grinding glibness that Hugh Grant would have delivered in the same role 15 years earlier.
Watching Gleeson go through his paces in "About Time," it’s becoming clear that one of the reasons that a new generation of Irish actors, from Michael Fassbender to Saoirse Ronan to Gleeson, are so sought after is because they can access the emotional core of a role with a disarming degree of authenticity.
Irish people understand heartache. They know how to convey that through art too.
So how talented is Gleeson? Well, one thing that will floor you in "About Time" is how well the Dublin-born actor sustains a flawless English accent throughout the film. And when I say flawless, it’s as though he had been born there.
He does it so commandingly, he’s so pitch perfect that he deserves his own special award category — Irishman who can play upper middle class Englishman better than the Englishmen themselves, perhaps.
Truth be told there were always Irish men, actors and non-actors who learned how to blend chameleon like into English surroundings, but few do it so well that you’ll demand to see their passport as the credits roll. Gleeson can, and it marks him out as a very serious actor.
Gleeson also understands the seductive rhythms of a Richard Curtis film, and by doing so he delivers the most memorable performance in the film, eclipsing even Rachel McAdams in the tearjerking stakes.
That ka-ching you hear is the sound of the big studios suddenly dropping everyone else and lining up to book him for their next big projects. Expect to see his name in lights for the rest of your life.
It’s genius casting, putting Gleeson in the lead of "About Time." On paper – and to be honest, on screen for the first 10 or so minutes – he looks completely wrong for the part. He’s handsome, but slightly weird looking in a good way.
But those snarky ad libs and asides in the script just work when delivered with eyes that soulful. A younger Hugh Grant is really what his role initially requires, someone who’s about an inch deep and has about as much soul as a McDonald’s fish fillet.
Truthfully, Gleeson struggles to find the right tone in the first few scenes of the film. It’s only when McAdams appears that those big lamp lights of his finally find their focus. His love for her anchors the film and he carries it to the final frame.
If I’m giving the impression that I admired the film I’d like to walk that back a little now. Gleeson delivers a star turn, but the material is for the most part unimaginative and unchallenging.
The problem is the women. They’re given so little to do other than be pursued, give birth or mourn their lost loves. There are gay jokes that would have been funny 20 years ago but are just kind of embarrassing now.
I mean, it’s 2013. Isn’t it time that women were given more to do that look decorative?
With her supernaturally perfect teeth and her excruciatingly adorable bangs, the truth is McAdams is too cute for words and too dull for them too. Curtis’ script rarely gives her more to do than look nice in a tight dress or be the object of affection that completes Gleeson’s character Tim, who ages from 21 to 28 as the film progresses.
As the film moves along it becomes more and more disturbing how little the women have to do, since they’re constantly overshadowed by the men. In fact the real love story, the one that proves the most moving and memorable, is the one between Tim and his terminally ill father (played flawlessly by the remarkable Bill Nighy).
Hilariously, only the men in the family in "About Time" have the power to time travel and re-do events to get a desired result. We’re never told why this is so. Perhaps because in the world of this film the women are configured and reconfigured so that the men can manipulate them.
But it starts to get a little objectionable, all this time tinkering. It starts to feel like the women are having their choices made for them before they even know they’ve been stitched up.
Even more hilarious is the way in which the men time travel in the film. To go back to the past (whether it’s an hour ago or a year ago) they step into a closet and they just close the door. It’s like coming out in reverse.
But instead of announcing a change, or making any kind of statement, they actually do it to keep their secrets and let no one else in on them ever.
So for all its surface romance there’s something more than a bit off about "About Time." Audiences will probably eat it up by the spoonful, but I thought it presented one of the most depressingly reductive views of women I’ve seen in a film this year.
That it’s saved at all is due to Gleeson’s sterling work, which lends the piece all the sweetness and sincerity it possesses.
"About Time" opens November 1. Here's the official trailer: